What comes around often comes around again - the case in point being the fact that frigid temperatures may have damaged local fruit farmers' crops for the second time this year.
Utah County's $10-million-a-year fruit-farming industry typically provides between 80 percent and 90 percent of the state's apple and cherry crops, as well as a good portion of its peaches. In May, unseasonably cold temperatures (between 26 and 29) destroyed as much as 85 percent of the valley's peach crops, 75 percent of its apple crops and 60 percent of its cherry crops, hitting vulnerable blossoms right in season.However, some farmers managed to salvage some fruit out of the damage, possibly the worst in the county's current four-year hardship. Last week's ultra-frigid temperatures (which hit 12 to 14 below zero in some lower-valley orchards) didn't help much, though, and may have already damaged vulnerable buds on the more-sensitive peach and cherry trees. Many farmers are remaining optimistic and say the full extent of the damage won't be known until the cold wave blows over.
Howard Riley, a Payson fruit farmer with 37 years of experience, said perhaps as much as 25 percent of his sweet cherry crops could have been damaged, and that for much of the valley, peaches could be a total loss.
Though Riley no longer grows peaches on his farm, up until 1988 that crop was a good portion of his yield, when he was hit hard by a similar winter kill. He said this year's freeze is similar in temperature to that chill, though the freezing temperatures then were in February.
According to Riley, the peach tree buds can be damaged by temperatures colder than 10 below zero, while cherry buds can be damaged at temperatures below minus-15.
"They just don't weather the temperatures as well as apple trees, which are just more hardy," he said. "These cold temperatures are very definitely causing damage - we just can't say how much yet."
Another veteran Payson fruit farmer, Rey Allred, who has 30 years' experience, said making initial damage assessments may be a bit hasty. Allred and other farmers met with Tony Hatch, Utah State University Extension Services fruit specialist, this past week to discuss possible weather problems.
After that meeting, Allred said area farmers aren't ready to hit the panic button yet. "When there's finally a warming trend, we can make a careful examination and make a good estimation on the full extent of the damage."
A positive note for farmers is the fact that temperatures have changed gradually between fall and winter, and most trees have been able to gradually store sap and bark over, according to Riley.
"Our saving grace may be that the trees have had time to weather themselves against cold temperatures. They're not going to get any harder than they already are, and hopefully they're pretty temperature-resistant."
Also, crops in early 1990 blossomed more heavily than usual before the spring frost, and if 1991 crops do likewise, even fruit farms with significant damage during this freeze could get at least one-half of their typical yield, Riley said.
Unlike cold spring weather, when farmers can use portable heaters and wind machines to increase orchard temperatures, the farmers usually don't have the benefit of temperature inversions - a condition in which heat is trapped between cloud cover and ground - to combat frigid winters, Allred said.
Economically, many farmers are bailing out of the business because of the recent hardship, which included a disastrous 1987 hail, the 1988 winter frost kill and both 1990 chills. Both Riley and Allred say they're in the business to stay, though, especially Riley, whose $30,000 Christmas tree orchards provide 25 percent of his farm's income.