In the aftermath of the devastating Easter Freeze of 2007, Dave Sergeant of Prairie Grove was one of the lucky farmers.
While most growers in Northwest Arkansas had their fruit crops wiped out by the hard freeze that saw 17-degree temperatures over the April 7-8 weekend, Sergeant’s blackberry crop wasn’t a total loss.
At 67, Sergeant has farmed in Northwest Arkansas all his life but neither he nor anyone else in the state has ever seen an event like the freeze that caused losses totaling $84.3 million across 68 counties declared federal disaster areas.
Arkansas secretary of agriculture Richard Bell estimates the freeze cost the industry $67.9 million in lowered wheat yields after being on track for a record harvest, and $16.4 million from a 52 percent loss in specialty crops.
According to the USDA, 253 farmers in Benton, Washington, Madison, Crawford and Sebastian counties suffered 100 percent losses.
Bell said fruit and nut harvests were down 75 percent year-over-year, with 100 percent losses across many Northwest Arkansas specialties such as grapes, blueberries and peaches.
But Sergeant escaped a complete catastrophe even after University of Arkansas experts said he wouldn’t have a blackberry crop in 2007.
“About two weeks later, they started putting out new buds,” Sergeant said. “The berries weren’t far enough along and the plant didn’t recognize it had reproduced. It put out new buds and a new crop. It wasn’t as large as it would have been, but a lot of people lost the entire crop. “We were down about 25 percent.”
Sergeant usually nets about 30,000 pounds of blackberries from his three acres and he said his normal practices might have saved part of his 2007 crop.
“We didn’t fertilize, and that may have had something to do with it,” Sergeant said. “We don’t try to give them a shot early. People who were just a little ahead of ours in bloom were far enough along the plant recognized it had reproduced and didn’t put out more buds.”
Sergeant’s years of experience came in handy in 2007, and that same knowledge has him hopeful that the devastation of last April can be followed by a bountiful harvest this August.
“There was a lot less stress on plants and trees and we should have a better yield this year than we’ve had in several years,” Sergeant said. “All the nutrients that were sucked up went to the strength of the tree because they did not produce fruit. Producing fruit takes a lot out of trees and they can die. I’ve had trees that had such a yield it sucked all the nutrients out and it couldn’t recover.
“I think this year will be a better crop simply because the trees didn’t do anything last year. It’s a chance to rejuvenate.”
Chris Ranalli of Ranalli Produce in Tontitown sees the colder winter as a factor that could help avoid another disaster, but he and his fellow growers are still holding their breaths.
“At this time of year, everyone that is in this business is nervous,” Ranalli said. “Especially after last year. The only thing I can see in our favor right now is we are having enough cold weather where it will keep everything held back so it doesn’t bud earlier. Last year it was unseasonably warm and the buds were swelling.”
In the Blood
The term “old school” was coined for men like Ranalli.
Ranalli proudly states he’s never taken a penny from the federal government, in spite of aid that was available to farmers who suffered losses in the Easter Freeze.
“We just swallowed it and moved on,” he said.
While many of his fellow farmers have sold off land that has turned into subdivisions or Springdale Har-Ber High School, Ranalli bought a neighbor’s parcel to make sure no one could develop it.
As the grandson of Italian immigrants who moved to Tontitown in 1907, bought the farm he still works in 1923 and suffered their own share of prejudice, Ranalli is also fiercely protective of the Hispanics he hires to help harvest his crops.
“If it wasn’t for the Hispanics around here, this place would shut down,” he said. “We couldn’t get our 20 acres of grapes harvested. [The freeze] affected them because they didn’t have extra cash to pay their bills. These are good citizens with other jobs, not illegal aliens, coming out here to help a farmer.
“People who bad-mouth Hispanics don’t need to do it with their mouths full. Seriously.”
Independent of each other, he and Sergeant used an identical phrase to describe why they keep pushing on in an increasingly difficult industry.
“It’s in your blood,” they said.
They are also savvy businessmen and like any good investor, they are diversified.
Sergeant has a tree farm with about 6,000 trees and he plans to increase that by about 1,000 this year. He sells shade trees like oaks and maples to local nurseries here and in Fort Smith, as well as to individuals.
Sergeant’s summer vegetables weren’t affected, and he sells crops like okra to local grocers Harps and Marvin’s IGA.
“They will buy about anything you have that is high quality and grown locally,” he said. “When they buy from a distributor, it’s already turning bad and they want it fresh. We pick about 300 pounds on a daily basis from the first of July to the first killing frost.”
Ranalli increased his acreage of some vegetables to try to recoup his losses.
“You just try to pick up a dollar somewhere else,” he said.
Other than grapes, the Ranalli family grows fruits and vegetables for retail at its store about 4.5 miles west of Interstate 540 on U.S. Highway 412.
Grapes are the only crop Ranalli will sell wholesale, preferring to keep the retail profits at the store, which also sells homemade pastas and has a bakery. He’s even kicked around the idea of producing his own grape juice.
“It’s a love for what you do,” Ranalli said. “I know a lot of people would have bailed out a long time ago, but the reason we’ve done it for so long is because we started selling our produce at retail.”
“This was a 100-year freeze,” Ranalli said. “It may not happen for another 100 years, but it may happen this year. Nobody knows.”
Events like the Easter Freeze – and land prices that have been discouraging new farm operations for the last 20 years – are what keep people out of farming, Ranalli said.
“People have gotten hailed out, or gotten freeze problems and had to go to town,” he said. “Well, they never came back.”
Sergeant said it’s next to impossible to go “cold turkey” into farming.
Sergeant said his harvested blackberries are weighed daily and he has records going back for decades recording yields by day pinpointing the peak of the season.
“There’s nobody anywhere that has blackberry patch that looks as good as ours does,” he said. “We know what it takes to grow a good product and we spend the time and the money to make it happen.”
That dedication and pride is what keeps the Northwest Arkansas agriculture industry going and customers flocking to farmer’s markets in search of the freshest, highest quality produce.
But even for an old hat like Sergeant, a 100-year lesson can be learned from the Easter Freeze.
“I will take out crop insurance starting next year,” he said. “I won’t be caught without it.”