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Fruit growers nervous

Rains have helped, but freak cold spell could doom crops

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PAYSON — Utah fruit growers are thankful for recent sunshine and showers but are keeping a wary eye on the temperature gauge.

With tart cherries past their full bloom, any long-term drop in temperature below 30 degrees Fahrenheit could spell disaster for a crop, said Robert McMullin of McMullin Orchards in Payson.

From now until harvest, the orchards are critically sensitive to the weather, McMullin said. But with temperatures alternating from cold to hot and wet to dry, spring weather in Utah can be an unpredictable obstacle.

"We hold our breath this time of year because the fruit is past full bloom," said Adrian Hinton, a fruit agent for the Utah State University agricultural extension office.

Though Monday was warm, Hinton said that temperatures can still drop before summer heat sets in.

"Typically, by Mother's Day we are out of danger," Hinton said. "Unless there is a real freak cold snap."

According to meteorologists at KSL, the upcoming forecast calls for highs in the high 70s for the next two days. By Thursday, temperature will drop to the low 60s — meaning that nighttime temperatures could dip into the 30s.

Dean Miner, a county director for the Utah State University agricultural extension office, said that tart cherries can withstand temperatures down to 27 degrees for up to an hour. Hinton is crossing his fingers that it won't get that cold.

Even the recent rainstorms haven't hurt orchards, since the rain fell after the blossoms were pollinized. (Tart cherries are self-pollinized.)

"The rainfall hasn't hurt anything," Miner said. "There's not been enough hail or heavy rain to damage the blossoms."

Only a few orchards in northern Utah have reported any significant frost damage, Hinton said, since most commercial producers use warming fans to counter cold temperatures.

Miner said that Utah County is doing well, which is important since the county grows 80 percent of all fruit in the state. While tart cherries lead — although they are a distant second to Michigan's No. 1 position as a national tart cherry producer — apples rank second in fruit production, Miner said.

Like McMullin, Scott Rowley's crops are mostly tart cherries — which Utah exports around the country. Both growers also produce sweet cherries, apples, peaches and pears.

However, many local growers are easing out of apple production, some selling their land to home builders. Apples face tough competition on the world market, Miner said.

The Chinese dominate in apple production with 49 percent of the world's production, McMullin said. The United States produces only about 9 percent of the world's apples. A decade ago the United States and China were about even in production, he said, but China has been able to forge ahead with cheap labor and a good quality product.

Utah remains big on cherries, however, and conditions are looking sweet this year.

"We've had a little (frost) damage," Rowley said, "but it's only been minor."

Grower Morris Ercanbrack said that the rain has kept fruit moist while cloudy conditions have kept damaging frost at bay. With summer approaching, that leaves little time left for frosty conditions.

"It should warm up," Ercanbrack said. "Maybe we'll escape (the frost) this year."

E-mail: rodger@desnews.com