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Two weeks ago, Utah County fruit farmers were looking forward to this year's crop as possibly the best in years.

Now, many are looking forward to next year. This weekend's ill-timed cold temperatures have wiped out most crops.An unseasonably mild early winter had most south-county fruit farmers cautiously optimistic about this year's crops, because adverse weather conditions and overproduction in the last five years has somewhat reduced the profits in the county's annual $10 million fruit-farming economy.

Those fears proved to be justified, as sub-freezing ground temperatures resulting from a late-season snow - combined with a lack of cloud cover - froze vulnerable fruit blossoms and already-ripening fruit, effectively destroying most of the county's apple and sweet cherry crops.

Last year's bitter cold effectively damaged most of the county's fruit-bearing trees - and 1987's hail and 1988's frost had done likewise - but snow Saturday and Sunday appears to have hit the county much harder, causing fruit destruction equaled only by a similar freeze in 1972.

Precautions ineffective

Several farmers, including Payson's Howard Riley - who has 37 years' experience in the business - were equipped with portable heaters and wind machines, but 26-degree temperatures Saturday night and Sunday morning effectively counteracted cold-weather precautions, and a lack of cloud cover reduced their efficiency.

"When the cloud cover broke about midnight, the temperatures dropped in a hurry," Riley said. "The skies just opened up, and because of that, combined with the snow, the ground was frozen."

According to Riley, the combination of the clear skies and cold temperatures was a killer. "Without either one, our crops might have survived, but now we're effectively out of the business for the year."

Dense cloud coverage can lead to temperature inversions - situations in which air is trapped between the ground and sky, helping farmers avoid frost damage, Riley said.

"We can use the wind machines to blow warmer air through the orchards, which can really heat them up. Unfortunately, that wasn't the situation this weekend."

Young workers losing jobs

Riley said he already has laid off more than 50 percent of his employees, including "several hundred young men and women" he employs at his fruit sheds.

"This just really hurts the county economy. This pretty much wipes out a lot of young people's employment for the summer. This will cause a great deal of hardship on a lot of people."

Also, with "almost one-half of a year between paychecks," some farmers could have a hard time keeping employees for next year's crops, Riley said.

"It's just unfortunate that this had to hit us when things were really looking up. This was probably our earliest spring ever. It's so hard to see everything you've worked for a year destroyed in one or two nights."

Fortunately, Riley's orchards have their annual Christmas tree business to fall back on during the winter and to "keep the wolves away from the door for awhile longer," he said.

"However, I'm really saddened for some of the other farmers. This looks like it's really going to hit them hard, and the wolves are always out there howling."

One lucky orchard

One orchard apparently did come through the freeze with some crops intact, at least so far. McMullin Orchards Inc. - a Payson farm with property throughout Payson and Santaquin - received damage to its peach and sweet cherry crops, though not to the extent of some other fruit growers.

"Right now, we're feeling fairly optimistic," said Ann Dockstader, sister of the orchard's owner, Robert McMullin. "We've been hit in our peaches and sweet cherries, but fortunately we have orchards in three different areas."

According to Dockstader, the farm's portable propane heaters and wind machines have been used effectively the last few nights, and should the cold string leave, the orchard still could have its best peach and cherry crops in five years.

"We had such good pollination and we had a good set of cherries - we could come out all right. It still might be too early to tell, though."

The orchard has been employing temp-watchers - crews in trucks with portable temperature sensors who roam the orchards nightly to help farmers maintain temperatures "before they hit critical," Dockstader said.

"We feel fairly fortunate so far. We've been hit, but we're not sure how hard yet. We're not wiped out yet. The next few nights should tell.

"We'll keep our heaters and wind machines ready for anything that might come up, but we're keeping our fingers crossed so far."


(Additional information)

Warming trend

Freeze warnings should be over, at least for this week.

The cold front that moved through Utah, destroying crops along its way, will be replaced by a warming trend Wednesday.

Highs Wednesday will be in the 60s and lows in the 40s.

Above-normal temperatures in the 70s are expected by the end of the week.