An unseasonably warm winter and early spring has exposed the trees of New York's iconic McIntosh apples to a potential crop-killing freeze as temperatures across the state were expected to plunge last night.

Apple and apricot trees, berry bushes and grapevines have emerged from winter dormancy about three weeks ahead of usual, according to Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association in upstate Fishers. That leaves buds on fruit trees in New York and other Northeastern states vulnerable to temperatures that were forecast to drop to as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

New York has produced an average of 30 million bushels of apples a year since 2007, and it is the largest grower of McIntosh apples in the United States. The 2011 crop was worth $270 million, Allen said.

"The apple industry is holding their breath," David Wolfe, a plant and soil scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, said in an email. "They're expecting some damage tonight. The question is how much."

"We're very scared," Allen said. "We're in a very risky situation."

The conditions in New York follow the fourth-warmest U.S. winter on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Syracuse reached 80 on March 18, 32 degrees above normal and the highest since record-keeping began in 1950, according to Christopher Vaccaro, a spokesman for NOAA. Binghamton had seven consecutive days of record highs ending March 23, the longest such string since 1953.

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the crops in New York and other northern states may escape serious damage because their blossoming is not far enough along to allow for maximum exposure to the cold.

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