With the latest batch of sub-freezing temperatures hitting Utah County's fruit farmers, finally there's a piece of good luck to go with the bad.
Low temperatures ranged between 25 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit in county orchards this week, which is low enough to conceivably destroy between 10 to 50 percent of the county's apricot crops."Under these circumstances (with low temperatures ranging in the high 20s) we would expect very minimal damage as far as most fruit crops go," said Tony Hatch, Utah State University Extension Service's fruit specialist. "However, some apricots could have sustained quite a bit of damage."
Perhaps a bit luckily, though, that crop is probably the most sporadic in the county, according to Hatch.
"Those crops are more restricted to the St. George and Box Elder County areas, as far as their purpose as a cash crop goes. Most farmers here only grow them for themselves."
Hatch said warmer temperatures in March and very early April had most apricot trees already blooming, when both the plants and fruit are most susceptible to weather-related damage.
Probably the Utah County fruit farmer with the most at stake from the freeze is Orem's Morris Ercanbrack. Ercanbrack and his family own 275 acres throughout the county, including five acres in West Mountain dedicated to apricots. As of Friday morning, he said that already his orchards suffered their worst damage during December's disastrous chill.
During that freeze, in which negative-teen temperatures were the norm in Wasatch Front orchards, approximately 80 to 90 percent of the state's stone-fruit crops (including peaches, plums and nectarines) were destroyed. Overall, the county averages about $10 million yearly in fruit-farming profits, with the stone-fruit crops accounting for just over 15 percent of the valley's fruit yields.
Also during the freeze, many apricot trees in the valley were located in higher-elevation areas and actually survived and bloomed before the current cold spell.
Ercanbrack said because of cloud cover, most of his orchards averaged 28 degrees for their low, so his crops should be in good shape. "We're going to check the extent of the damage today, but we could have lucked out."
Other fruit crops have not yet bloomed, so most farmers may have scarcely noticed the April chill, Hatch said. "Though the peaches were pretty much killed in December, the rest of the valley's crops should still be in pretty good shape - depending on the weather, of course."
Sweet cherry crops could begin blooming as early as 10 days from now, and apples could bloom a week after that, according to Hatch. "That time period will be critical for both the fruit and the valley, especially taking the last few years into account."
Economically, many farmers are bailing out of the fruit-farming business because of recent hardships, including a disastrous 1987 hail, the recent 1988 winter frost kill and both spring and winter freezes in 1990. Those adverse conditions have weakened many trees and orchards to the point that they are more susceptible at higher temperatures, Hatch said.
"With any luck, the temperatures will rise to where they were before this week," he said. "If that happens, there could be some substantial fruit crops in the works."