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Hail storm puts dent in potential profits for growers

With thunderstorms in the forecast, 30 workers at Baugher's Orchard were quickly picking cherries in the hopes of saving them from wind or hail damage early Thursday morning.

Just after 8 a.m., they had to take cover. The skies darkened. The wind gusted to more than 50 mph. And pea-sized hail started pinging off rooftops.

"I knew this wasn't going to be pretty," Farm and Orchard Manager Dwight Baugher said.

A line of severe thunderstorms dropped hail - some chunks the size of quarters - in portions of Carroll County Thursday morning. The wind-whipped ice and destroyed tomatoes and apples at farms and orchards, particularly near Union Bridge, New Windsor and Marston in western Carroll.

The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in College Park said the thunderstorms were part of a low-end derecho with wind gusts of greater than 50 mph. Hail fell for up to 20 minutes in the New Windsor area, leaving behind enough ice to cover decks and driveways.

The ice ripped through the skin of apples and tomatoes on impact.

At Valley View Orchard near New Windsor, honey crisp, fugi and crimson crisp apples were bruised and covered with welts. The orchard owned by the Baugher family suffered considerable damage to its crop of specialty apples.

Many of them will still be usable for juice when they ripen, Baugher said. But the apples grown there are more profitable if sold whole. Rather than making a profit on crops that cost $7 to $8 a bushel to grow, the Baughers are now looking at losing $2 to $3 per bushel.

"In the heat of the moment, you scratch your head and wonder, 'why, again, do we do this crazy business?'" Baugher said. "Then you quickly realize there is plenty on your list to still do. That's why you are diversified. That's why you grow other crops."

At Lehigh View Farm between Union Bridge and New Windsor, tomatoes that were just a few days away from being picked were pummeled by hail. The larger the tomato, the thinner the skin is, said Jennifer Griffin, of Lehigh View Farm.

Griffin was expecting tomatoes ready to be sold later this month. The tomato plants were transplanted from a green house to fields in the second week of May and had many green tomatoes getting ready to turn red.

"Now, we have to pull them off and throw them away," she said. "They just aren't usable."

Farmers are constantly at risk from all types of inclement weather, including drought, frosts, freezes and floods. But extended periods of hail are always particularly worrisome to growers because they can ruin crops instantly.

"It just makes you sick how quickly so much work can just be negated by a freak storm," said Bryan Butler, a regional fruit educator who works out of the University of Maryland Extension Carroll County Office.

In the storm's aftermath, Butler heard about grain fields that had been flattened by the combination of wind and hail in West Carroll.

Hail fell at Baugher's Orchards and Farm Market just west of Westminster. But it fell for only five minutes, not nearly as long as it did in other portions of the county, Dwight Baugher said.

Thus, fruit damage there was not nearly as widespread as it was in New Windsor.

Still, the hail made a dent in fruits and, likely, profits for his business this year.

"There aren't too many jobs, aside from maybe winning the Super Bowl, where something a couple minutes long can take out a whole season of work," he said.

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