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More than 1.6 million trees can't be wrong.

Utah County is the place to be for the ambitious fruit tree. With about 10,000 of Utah's 12,000 orchard acres, the county produces 85 percent of the annual crop. Last year's state crop sold for more than $12 million."The orchards are here partly because of the climate, but mostly because of land availability," said Tony Hatch, fruit specialist at the Utah State University Extension Service in Provo. "Most of the orchards in Salt Lake County were sold off for subdivisions. And south of here, the climate is less favorable."

And while the money does grow on trees, it's never an easy harvest. Many things can go wrong.

"There are insect pests to deal with, and the weather causes problems," Hatch said.

This Jan. 2, temperatures dropped to 15 degrees below zero.

"The fall was warm, so the trees had not acclimated for the cold weather. It did lots of damage."

The next problem was a cool spring, said Frank Sorenson, a Santaquin peach grower.

"The bees don't get out and pollinate the blossoms if it's below 60 degrees."

Then the buds are threatened by possible spring frosts.

"The critical temperature is 29 degrees," Alan Riley, owner of Riley's orchards in Genola, said. "Any colder than that, and there will be damage. It's just a matter of how much."

He said fruit farmers hope for a warm day before the frost and for overcast weather. Under those conditions, the earth releases collected warmth, which is then trapped above the trees, but below the clouds - a thermal inversion. Large fans on 30-foot poles are used to blow the warm air down to the orchard.

During a May 2 freeze, Riley said he positioned his few smudge pots (heaters) so the fans would circulate the warm air produced.

"But most orchards got rid of their smudge pots when the cost of oil skyrocketed. The people without pots can only hope the inversion will protect them," he said.

It helped almost everyone that night, but Hatch said there was a hole in the clouds above parts of north Orem and Lindon.

"You could look right up and see the sky," Hatch said. "It got pretty cold in isolated areas. It was 26 and 27 degrees for extended periods. The damage was spotty."

Among the hard-hit was the Lindon Welfare Orchard in north Orem.

"We lost most of our peaches, lots of pears and a significant number of apples," said a spokesman who preferred not to give his name. "We're looking at about 10 percent of our usual harvest. There will be a lot less to can this year."

And last spring, after much of the frost danger had passed, Utah was hit by a severe hail storm that did the most damage to the Genola - West Mountain area.

"The apples and peaches looked pretty good until the storm," Riley said. "We lost almost everything."

Riley had taken a job managing another orchard to stabilize his income, and that orchard was hard-hit too.

"The apples had so much decay, they couldn't even make juice grade. We just let them drop. We had spent a lot of time and money on chemicals, water, fertilizer and hand-thinning. It's hard to watch your work fall to the ground."

Riley said he hopes this year will be good, because two bad years in a row could wipe him out financially.

"Several orchards lost almost everything," Hatch said. "The owners are still hanging on, but I've gotten a lot of calls from banks asking about the orchard business. They want more information before they give out or extend loans."

Buds that survive frosts and natural disasters may be lost in the June drop.

"We're in the middle of the June drop now. When the fruit gets to about the size of a marble, a lot of it sloughs off," Hatch said. "The healthier buds hog nutrients at the expense of weaker ones. Actually, we wish they would shed more, so we wouldn't have to do it." He said orchardists almost always remove some buds to ensure the remaining ones will grow uncrowded into large fruits.

Some threats to Utah's fruit profits may come from the growers.

"We have some people who are not interested in hearing ways to increase their efficiency," Hatch said. "It's just like any business; people don't want to change their ways. Some of them are older and they have been in the business a long time. We are putting most of our effort into working with the younger growers."

A 1982 survey showed 66.5 percent of Utah's commercial farmers (all crops) were over age 55, with 42 percent over age 65.

Hatch said orchardists might also help the Utah fruit image if they set higher standards for what could be sold in grocery stores.

How Utah ranks nationally in fruit production

Tart cherries -3rd

Apricots -3rd

Pears -7th

Sweet cherries -7th

Apples -18th

Tons of Utah fruit produced, used*

1987 50,620

1986 36,660

1985 48,780

1983 55,700

*Not all the fruit produced is used. These figures show what is actually used.

5000+v Values of fruit grown in Utah

1987 $12,390,000

1986 $12,641,000

1985 $15,979,000

1984 $12,347,000

1983 $21,046,000

(Utah County produces about 85 percent of Utah's fruit crop.)