Archive for Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cold snap zaps fruit trees in area

April 11, 2007

Laurie Walters reached into the branches of one of her Jonagold apple trees and plucked out a dull pink bud.

She took a knife from her pocket and cut open the tiny blossom to look at the color inside.

Instead of finding a healthy bright green color indicating a healthy, fruit-capable bud, Walters just sees a black spot. The bud was dead.

"Everything I've cut today is all black," said Walters, who owns Wildhorse Orchard along with her husband, Perry.

For the first time since the Walterses had first started getting apples and peaches from their orchard in the mid 1980s, it appears there will be no fruit to harvest this year.

Walters, like many other Kansas farmers, have lost some if not all of their crops because of cold weather that has gripped most of the country the last week.

"This is pretty complete," she said as she surveyed the damage to the hundreds of apple trees in her orchard near McLouth. The trees that once had vibrant green leaves and delicate white flowers growing on them now have withered brown reminders of what could have been and what they have lost.

Mel Theno, a technician for the Leavenworth County's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said fruit was by far damaged the most.

"All of those fruit trees, they really took a hit," Theno said. "It probably wiped out this year's production on anything that's bloomed. The apricots tend to bloom first. The peaches and those kind of fruits had already bloomed; the apples were starting to bloom, so some of the apples would probably be damaged."

Unfortunately for the Walterses, this year's apples were coming in two weeks ahead of schedule. Walters said before she and her husband left to go out of town to visit family this past Easter weekend, there was going to be a problem.

Instead of blossoming in mid April, the trees were starting to blossom at the end of March. Walters said the crops are more robust before they begin to bloom, but are particularly vulnerable at the blossoming stage. When the temperatures began to dip around freezing, the Walterses knew what was going to happen.

"They were damaged before we left on Friday. They were certainly well shot today," Walters said Monday. "I would be surprised if we had any viable fruit out there today."

This is not the first time the Walterses have experienced a loss in their crop. In 1986, five years after they first planted their trees, a spring frost destroyed their apple crop, but spared their peaches, which can stand a little more cold weather. But this year, it appears nothing survived.

The Walters first began selling the fruit from their 1,000 apple trees and 180 peach trees as a way to get extra money to help pay for their children's college tuition. Now that all of their children have graduated, the money from the fruit sales and sales of their award-winning apple cider has been used as supplemental income for retirement.

Walters said they would press around 5,000 to 8,000 gallons of cider each year. They would even freeze some so they can continue to sell it beyond the season. Last year they sold out in December.

Wheat and alfalfa crops also were damaged by the cold weather. While Leavenworth County is not a big wheat producer, Theno said more farmers planted wheat for this year's harvest because of its price last year.

Theno explained that depending on the wheat's growth stage, exposure to temperatures at or below 20 degrees for two hours would cause damage.

"The county is right at the stage where it is becoming vulnerable to that 20 degrees," he said.

Theno said wheat and alfalfa farmers wouldn't be able to assess the full extent of the damage for another week or so, or until whatever survived began to grow.

But all hope is not lost.

Michelle Meyer, co-owner of Holy-Field Winery, is still optimistic about her grape harvest.

Even though there has been some damage to the primary fruiting buds, the secondary fruiting buds look healthy and the grapevines will still produce grapes.

"The secondary fruiting bud gives you less volume, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. When you have lower volume of grapes, typically the quality of fruit is better," she said.

Meyer recalls what happened to her one year when she lost half of her crop.

A severe hailstorm near the end of spring hit the already-blossoming grapevines. While the hail destroyed most of the primary buds, the secondary buds were still alive.

"On a particular grapevine that got hit the most severely I won one of the biggest award I've ever won for the wine," she said.

As for the Walterses, they still have mixed feelings about losing their crop. This would be the first summer in a long time that the two will not be tied to the orchard, and with grandkids, maybe that's not a bad thing.

"Who knows, we might be able to go on a vacation," Walters said.

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