Area orchard owners hoping cool weather doesn’t chew business to the core

2012-04-10T00:00:00Z Area orchard owners hoping cool weather doesn’t chew business to the coreBy Amy Pearson and Betsy Bloom | Lee Newspapers Winona Daily News

It could be a nervous couple of nights for the region’s apple growers.

With temperatures threatening to drop into the 20s both overnight Monday and late tonight into Wednesday, Eric Rogich said he will be “hoping and praying and watching” at Southwind Orchard near Dakota, Minn.

This spring’s early stretch of warm weather woke up area apple trees about a month sooner than usual.

The more-than-135-acre apple orchard already has a number of trees in bloom, said Rogich, the orchard’s farm manager. The orchard even had to bring in honeybee hives from Texas to begin pollinating a month earlier than normal.

Freezing temperatures are more dangerous than in previous years, when the trees’ delicate buds normally don’t open until May. But most of the tender buds should be able to withstand the cold — as long as it is temporary, Rogich said. The risk grows if the winds stall and the frigid air is able to bed down in the orchard for the night.

Southwind has three propeller-head fans strategically placed near its precious Zestars, Honeycrisp and young SweeTango trees to keep air circulating enough to ward off frost, but each oscillating fan can only cover about 15 acres, Rogich said. The rest of the orchard will have to rely on a hillside placement that benefits from rising heat.

They had a scare Friday when the thermometer hit the dreaded 28-degree mark, considered to be the threshold when the buds can be damaged, Rogich said. But it quickly rose.

Harry Hoch of Hoch Orchard and Gardens in La Crescent, Minn., agrees that the weather is a numbers game.

Slightly warmer temperature would wreak far less havoc on his fruit, killing about 20 percent of his crop as opposed to 90 percent if the temperature drops to 25 or colder.

“Two or three degrees can make a big difference,” Hoch said.

Hoch may counter the cold by building bonfires in his orchard or spraying the buds with water. A layer of ice around the apple blossoms can lock in heat and keep their temperature just warm enough to save them.

Ecker’s Apple Farm in Trempealeau, Wis., will be almost entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Jessica Ecker said the business bought a frost fan earlier this year to help ward off damage from dangerous cold snaps—but the equipment isn’t scheduled to arrive until this weekend.

Until then, they’ll cross their fingers and hope for the best.

The Eckers have sprayed their trees with a coat of a calcium nutrient to help protect the buds, but it’s a small defense mechanism, and if temperatures do drop into the mid-20s it likely won’t save the crop.

“It’s just part of being a farmer,” Ecker said. “You’re very vulnerable at this stage.”

At Fruit Acres in La Crescent, Minn., general manager Ralph Yates said the combination of bluffs and air flow along the river creates “a little micro-climate here.”

“That’s originally why the orchards were all planted on the bluffs,” Yates explained.

After years of working with the apples, Yates sees little reason to worry about what might happen. He’s had crops appear lost to frost in the past only to develop into a fine harvest come fall.

“People tend to get all worked up and they overreact,” Yates said. “It’s something we can’t do anything about, so it’s better just to wait and see.”

Copyright 2015 Winona Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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