Orchardists begin their rites of spring

Growers shield crops from cold

With below-freezing low temperatures expected through the rest of the week, fruit growers at Z’s Orchard in Palisade aren’t wasting a moment.

Workers at the farm off 33 3/4 Road were scrambling Tuesday filling smudge pots with diesel fuel that they’ll probably have to fire up in the early morning hours this week to ensure that precious apricot blossoms don’t freeze on their more than 100 trees.

“It’s a labor of love. This is what you do,” said farm manager Richard Skaer. “People don’t know what we do to get that little box of what they like.”

According to the Grand Junction National Weather Service, nighttime lows are expected to be between 25 degrees and 35 degrees for the next three nights. The chilliest temperatures may be Thursday and Friday nights, with lows expected to dip down into the mid-20s.

Most at risk for the week’s low temperatures are apricot trees, which have fully bloomed in the Orchard Mesa and Palisade area. Those blooms are 18 days ahead of schedule, according to a model devised by the Western Colorado Research Center.

Critical temperatures for apricot blooms at this time of year are between 22 degrees and 25 degrees. The blossoms are in danger if the temperature drops to that range for more than 30 minutes, according to the model, which is updated by Harold Larsen, an fruit pathologist for Colorado State University.

Apricots are the first to bloom, but the area’s famously succulent peaches began blooming on March 21, about 17 days before normal. Peaches normally get their first blooms here by April 6 and are fully bloomed April 11.

The lower temperatures have peach grower Dennis Clark thinking about “the worst sound you’ll ever hear.” That noise, an alarm that goes off when the temperature outside hits 34 degrees to 35 degrees, launches him out of bed to start the wind machines.

Wind machines can whip up colder air on the orchard floor and bring down some of the warmer temperatures. The machines can cause a temperature increase of 4 degrees, which can make a world of difference on his orchard of 90 acres at production time. But even that is no guarantee of success, as temperatures can vary within a half-mile.

“We just live day to day, week to week and just have to be prepared,” said Clark, who grew up filling smudge pots and burning fuel in the early springtime freezes on his family’s orchards.

“We’re always on the Internet checking out the temperatures. Every spring, we hear that the blooms are too early, but it’s the nature of the beast.”

At Z’s Orchard, Kendra Williams, a daughter who lives on the farm, said the slightest change in elevation or wind direction can change the outcome of the crop, putting different areas of the valley at greater risk of freezing.

“We don’t normally have too many bumper crops of apricots because the weather is always like this,” she said. “We can do really well over here and just across the street they might get nothing.”

Williams said losing the apricots wouldn’t be a huge loss for the farm, as they rely mostly on the sale of peaches and vegetables. But profits from the apricots do help pay for pruning and other labor costs.

Last year, only one-tenth of the apricot crop survived at Z’s Orchards. Workers picked only 30 boxes.

“A lot of people just don’t grow many apricots anymore for this reason,” Williams said.

By RICHIE ASHCRAFT & AMY HAMILTON


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