Who Needs This? Florence, a Cat 4 Hurricane (8 p.m., 9/10/18)

— Written By Barclay Poling
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Dear Agents, Agronomists, and Growers,

Good evening! This time of year is always a mad scramble of activity for strawberry growers and plant suppliers alike. The usual concerns for growers run the gamut from getting the right pre-plant fertilizer mix to making sure you finish your fumigation well ahead of your anticipated planting date (most fumigants require a 3-week plant back). For your plant supplier(s), their most important goal is to have quality plants ready for you when you want them!

So, what happens when we ‘add to the mix of our usual worries’ a hurricane in the 2nd week of September of the likes we’ve never seen before? In the figure below, the National Weather Service is showing that a hurricane by the name of Florence will be making landfall in the area of Wilmington, NC, in the early morning hours of Thursday, September 13th. And, according to a meteorologist for the Washington Post, Florence will be the only Cat 4 hurricane on record to make landfall this far north in the United States! Fran was the last Category 3 hurricane to make landfall in North Carolina 22 years ago (Sept 5, 1996), but we’ve never seen a Cat 4.

Image of the path of FlorenceFig. 1. Trajectory of Florence on 9/10/18 – Landfall expected on the North Carolina Coast sometime Thursday night!

Image of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane ScaleFig. 2. Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale

I also read in the Washington Post this afternoon that Florence could linger over the southeast for several days after landfall. Forecast models suggest that more than two feet of rain could fall over the higher elevations of the Carolinas and Virginia, which would generate dangerous flooding downstream. The flooding might be similar to what the Carolinas experienced during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

In speaking with a veteran grower in Eastern NC (Duplin County) today, he mentioned that for every 8-10 inches of rain, you can figure on a 1-week delay in field operations. But, what happens if the hurricane dumps two feet of water like the Washington Post article suggests?

Even allowing for perhaps 10 to 12 days delay in planting operations due to Florence and its after-effects, a grower with a target planting date of say September 25 should still be able to plant on time.

Up here in Virginia where I now live (Williamsburg), a number of the growers with planting dates at the end of this month just completed their fumigation by Labor Day weekend, or this past weekend (September 8-9). But, what if they have not yet fumigated with a planting date target of say September 25? Yikes! If they have been using a fumigant with a 3-week plant back, and can’t get back on the land until say September 25, then that would put them well into mid-October for their planting date, and in a brief  review of  planting date research, we know a two-week delay in planting could cause a very significant reduction in yield!

Clearly, this is not how we want to start the 2018-2019 season! Maybe Florence has some similarities to Fran in 1996, or Matthew in 2016, but it still to early to know for sure what we are dealing with? I have been in touch today with both Drs. Mark Hoffmann, Small Fruit Specialist, NC State University, and Jayesh Samtani, Small Fruit Specialist, VA Tech, and I look forward to being of assistance to them and our industry in dealing with this very challenging situation. Let’s hope tonight that these forecast models change! No one wants to go through anything like this.