Weather bodes ill for orchards

If the warm spell keeps up and is followed by a return to winter weather, fruit trees could pay a steep price.

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For most Walla Walla Valley residents, the recent warm weather has been a welcome reprieve from a chilly winter. But for local farmers, the false spring could be potentially damaging or even devastating to their crops.

In the past few days, temperatures above the winter average have been recorded. If these temperatures persist, some crops will begin to bud when they would normally be dormant.

Problems could then arise if a freeze were to follow, killing the budding plants, a local crop consultant said. Of the local crops, fruit trees are most susceptible to early freeze damage.

Dennis Burks, crop consultant for Milton-Freewater based Blue Mountain Growers described the onset of this weather pattern in 1987.

"We had a February where it went from 65 degrees to like two days later was 25 below zero. The sap had come up and you could go out to the trees and hear the trunks popping," Burks said.

Farmers are prepared to handle spring frosts, which are generally less severe and last for a shorter period of time. To combat frosts in the months of April and May, some growers use wind machines that blow warmer air from above onto the crop or run sprinklers to regulate the temperatures.

A winter freeze, however, presents a greater threat to the sprouting plants. Burks said that there is little that growers can do to prevent crop damage should freezing temperatures follow an extended warm period.

"If we didn't see a change in the next couple of weeks, we'd be real concerned," Burks said.

Local wheat growers have less to worry about.

Tammy Dennee, Executive Director of Oregon Wheat Growers League, explained that there is more leeway with moisture and temperature for the wheat crop.

"I think all of our growers understand that wheat is a very resilient crop. As long as we don't face extremes, it finds its way," Dennee said.

Dennee said if the freeze happened after the wheat sprouts, farmers would likely experience some crop loss depending on the length and severity of the freeze, but there is potential for much of the wheat to survive.

"Growers tend to talk about their crop as if it has nine lives. It manages itself in the ground" she said.

Dennee was optimistic about this year's crop, stating that it started off strong with good moisture levels. The ultimate outcome will all depend on the weather, and farmers must make their decisions day by day.

"It's really a wait and see. It's all up to Mother Nature. We bend at her will and we react accordingly," said Dennee.

Iris Alden can be reached at irisalden@wwub.com.

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