Anxious growers shiver

Amaya Atucha, a fruit crop specialist and an assistant professor with Colorado State University, examines peach blossoms for freeze damage Monday at the university’s Western Colorado Research Center on Orchard Mesa. Temperatures don’t tell the full story of damage, Atucha cautioned.

Peach growers in Palisade geared up Monday night for another cold blast in hopes of preserving a crop that was battered by an unusual lack of wind about 18 hours before.

Some growers said they fared reasonably well and others were more pessimistic, but no one planned to give up a crop that had largely budded out just as the coldest temperatures of the season approached and left behind a mystery that won’t be revealed for days, maybe even months.

“When you start picking them to sell, then you know what you’ve got,” said peachgrower Richard Pobirk, who spent the wee hours of Sunday night and Monday morning running his wind machines in hopes of fending off the cold.

He planned to do so again on Monday night.

“I got a fair crop of peaches,” Pobirk said after walking his orchard on Monday afternoon. “But you never know.”

Bruce Talbott of Talbott Farms was almost jubilant on Monday afternoon.

“I still think there’s 80 to 90 percent of a crop in valley,” Talbott said. “We’re still here.”

Less cheery was Amaya Atucha, a fruit-orchard specialist at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center on Orchard Mesa.

“I would not be absolutely, completely pessimistic,” Atucha said.

Still, many of the trees were in full bloom, exactly the worst time for a blast of arctic-like cold, Atucha said, and the length of time the trees were subjected to the cold was worrisome as well.

Peach trees in full bloom would suffer a 10 percent kill if exposed to temperatures as cold as 28 degrees, for half an hour, according to the research center website. Exposure for a similar length of time to 24-degree temperatures could kill 90 percent of blossoms.

“We went to 24.9” degrees, Atucha said.

Temperatures don’t tell the full story, Atucha cautioned, noting that much depends on the blossom stage, variety of fruit, location and other factors.

Location has saved many a Palisade peach crop because the trees benefit from warmer winds wafting out of De Beque Canyon even as cold grips Grand Junction and Fruita.

The difference on Monday was the cold front that passed through the Grand Valley on Sunday, National Weather Service forecaster Joe Ramey said.

“The Million Dollar Wind,” as it’s often called, was stifled by the cold that gushed into the valley from the northwest and disrupted the normal pattern, Ramey said.

Temperatures fell below freezing at Grand Junction Regional Airport at 10 p.m. and remained below that threshold for 11 hours, Ramey said. The official low at the airport Monday morning was 24 degrees.

“Eleven hours of subfreezing temperatures is pretty tough,” Ramey said.

That period of time was made all the more difficult because the usual ways of dealing with cold — firing up the wind machines — was rendered moot by the lack of warmer air, Atucha said.

Those factors aside, “We feel the blossoms could have taken it,” said Theresa High, owner of High Country Orchards.

Up until the weekend, she had been looking at the largest crop in the last five to seven years, High said.

“You only need 10 percent of the blooms to survive to have a successful crop,” High said, noting that she expected to get the wind machines going again on Monday night.

Another freeze was forecast, but normal conditions — that “Million Dollar Wind” — also were expected to return.

“If we can get though (Monday) night,” Talbott said, “maybe we’ll be OK.”

By one measure, the last full moon in April, which occurred just after midnight, marks the end of the freeze threat, High said.

Climatologically speaking, Ramey said, it’s more like April 22 before the threat expires, but that’s no guarantee.

“If we get through (Monday) night,” Ramey said, “we’re good for three or four days.”


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