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There's something in the air
Clarkesville man studies acid rain and its effects on his garden
Small tomato plants just beginning to grow in the enclosure John Fritchey built to protect crops from acid rain. - photo by Tom Reed
Note: Due to technical difficulties, the accompanying video with this story is unavailable.

CLARKESVILLE — On a warm spring day in the rolling hills of Habersham County, John Fritchey checks his small row of strawberries.

The young plants  are hidden underneath something that resembles a cheese cloth, which is held down with large rocks.

He removes the cloth to reveal beautiful strawberry plants with healthy, dark green leaves adorned with white flowers, expected to produce fruit in the next month or so.

“You should just see what that UV light can do,” he said. “I don’t put it on there to keep the cold off but to keep the UV off. It’s because the UV ain’t burning them and the wind ain’t getting to them.

“It looks like it wouldn’t take no time to set all this up, but you have to know what you’re doin’ first.”

This may seem like a cautious way to grow strawberries, but for Fritchey this is the only way to grow the plants that he believes must be shielded from acid wind and strong ultra violet rays.

Yes, acid wind.

Fritchey said he has been studying it, along with acid rain and acid fog, since 1942 in the swamps of the Everglades.

“The highest readings I ever got on CO2 was last summer,” he said. “I test for dissolved oxygen in the rainwater — fish can’t live in a dissolved oxygen level below three or two anyway and ... when it get below five there ain’t much left in the water.”

Long before there was an environmental movement, Fritchey has been out in his backyard, collecting samples of rainwater and keeping track of acid rain.

“I’ve been doing this 40 years before anyone had ever heard of Al Gore,” he said. Today, his records show rain is getting even more acidic.

“I don’t know what to do about it.”

According to L. Bruce Railsback, a professor in the Department of Geology at the University of Georgia, acid rain is rainwater that is more acidic than natural rainwater because of pollutants. Typically those pollutants are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which are commonly produced when we burn fossil fuels.

“(Sulfur dioxide) and (nitrogen dioxide) react in the atmosphere to make H2SO4 (sulfuric acid) and HNO3 (nitric acid). Thus the polluted rainwater is more acidic than in its natural condition,” he said.

And pH values measure the level of water’s acidity, including rainwater. Naturally, Railsback said, rainwater has a pH of about 5.6.

Railsback also said the addition of CO2 to the atmosphere has made rainwater more acidic but “it’s trivial compared to what people call ‘acid rain.’”

Acid rain has a pH of about 4, about 40 times more acidic than natural rainwater at 5.6.

Fritchey said the average around his house is about a 4.5. But he tests at more locations than just his home. He drives all over Habersham County with his testing equipment — which includes ozone meters, pH probes, litmus paper and old homemade tests that he learned from Seminole Indians — in his pickup truck, which he called a moving laboratory.

“I’ve got everything in there to test the rain, fog and ozone,” he said. “I can check ammonia, nitrogen right here.”

And if he doesn’t have the equipment, he said, he’ll send the samples to the University of Georgia.

“The best thing I have to test rain water with is that cheap (litmus) tape. You just break it off and if it’s foggy you just put it on your finger and break it off and drive down the road about 10 mph and let the fog get on it.”

But his testing and evidence gathering hasn’t always been as scientific.

In November 1942, Fritchey was 10 when he wrote down his first journal entry recounting a large fish kill in a pond in the Everglades.

He said he was inspired by his grandfather to start keeping track of what was going on in nature.

“We’ve got a journal that goes back nearly 100 years,” he said. “My granddaddy had me do it. He was extremely wise and he could read nature better than anyone I know and he saw all this stuff starting to happen and he said we better write it down.”

Not long after the fish kill, Fritchey met a neighbor down the street from his childhood home who raised tropical fish.

“He had to show me things about fish, how to check the pH and everything,” he said. “For 40 years people thought I was crazy, but you see what you see and you can’t change that.”

Fritchey grew up farming cabbage, collards and tomatoes in South Florida, and purchased the 200-acre farm in Clarkesville in 1968.

From then on he farmed during the winter in North Georgia and during the summer in Florida.

Up until about seven or eight years ago Fritchey grew vegetables on his farm and sold them at a roadside stand on Ga. 17 in Habersham County. He says he quit trying to grow many vegetables because of the acid wind, rain, fog and a shrinking ozone.

“You won’t believe it but you can’t grow pumpkins because of ozone,” he said. “We had the most beautiful pumpkins you ever saw up till about seven or eight years ago. Ozone would burn them and make ’em black on the tip, get thin skin and people won’t buy them.”

To try and combat the pollution at his farm, Fritchey has erected wooden structures that shield plants from wind, rain and UV rays with large swaths of clear plastic and black mesh. He plans on growing cabbage, some lettuce and tomatoes this summer.

“They will keep about 80 percent of the ozone out,” he said.

Over the years people have told Fritchey that he’s out of his mind spending so much time documenting changes in the environment. But according Railsback, even primitive ways of testing rainwater can be scientific.

Railsback’s study of his own backyard pH testing was printed in the Science of the Total Environment journal in 1997.

“There are different ways to do it and those range from the really simple easy way, which is if you have a pH meter that you calibrate and then you stick its wand into your unknown solution and your meter reads you a number,” he said. “From there, there are some various titration methods ... the really easy, probably not the best way to do this is with pH paper, litmus paper.”

Railsback did find with his testing that pH early on in a rainstorm was more acidic.  

“They were literally samples taken in my backyard,” he said. “What I was doing was trying to sample how rainwater pH changes over matters of minutes to hours during individual storms.

“It turned out that early on in storms the water would be more acidic and then as the storm ... tapered off the water would be most acidic early in the storm and less so later on.”

After nearly 70 years of collecting data from South Florida to Habersham County, Fritchey does think that climate change is real and is happening fast.

“That global warming is real and its more real than real,” he said. “When something upsets the way man operates the whole world ... when something changes for a little while, you see a vast difference in nature.”

But Fritchey knew when he was a young boy learning from the Indians in the swamp that this day would come. The Indians always talked about the evil wind that rose from the trains chugging across the Everglades.

“What’s the difference between evil wind and greenhouse gases, they are just different words ... them Indians couldn’t read or write but they were smart,” he said.

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