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Wet, cold spring is taking a toll on the state’s fruit crops

SHARE Wet, cold spring is taking a toll on the state’s fruit crops

Monday's late spring snowstorm set a record for the latest measurable snowfall at the Salt Lake City airport but left most southern Utah County commercial orchards undamaged. Other growers say it's too soon to determine possible damage from the storm.

"It's been a challenging spring," fruit grower David McMullin said Monday.

Despite the snowfall, temperatures didn't drop enough to damage young fruit.

"The peaches are OK, and the apples look good," McMullin said.

In other weather-related news, a KSL-TV cameraman was hospitalized in serious condition Monday after being struck by a car while covering a mudslide along I-80 in Salt Lake City.

The crash happened near 2400 East around 3 p.m., said Utah Highway Patrol trooper Cameron Roden.

A driver, possibly looking to change lanes, clipped a semitrailer and spun out of control, striking the cameraman, police said.

"He was transported to the hospital in serious condition, but it looks like he's going to make it," Roden said.

Mike Radice was taken to University Hospital. The extent of his injuries was not immediately known but he was conscious and talking.

Regarding Utah's crops, growers are still waiting to see how the tart cherries fared in an earlier May 7 freeze, which dropped temperatures to about 25 degrees. It took half the sweet cherry crop in McMullin's Genola farm and about a third at the company's Lincoln Beach farm.

McMullin Orchards also has a farm on West Mountain. Temperatures can vary at each orchard, he said.

"It isn't just the freeze," McMullin said. "It's not been a good year for pollination."

Farmers have had to work this May to keep their fruit warm, including using wind machines. "With the wind machines, we could hold the temperatures to 30 degrees in some places," McMullin said.

Other farmers said it was too early to tell whether they suffered any damage from Monday's snowstorm, according to Doug Rowley, who operates a packing shed.

"This has been a different year," he said, also citing the lack of pollination.

The earlier frost damaged mostly apples and peaches, he said of the fruit sent his way.

"We're past the blossoming," he said. "Now we need some heat so (the fruit) can grow."

Heavy moisture, particularly when it stacks up as snow in late May, is unusual, but the rule of thumb for agricultural crops is temperature, said David Bailey, a spokesman for the Utah Farm Bureau Federation in Sandy.

"These past few weeks have caught the attention of fruit growers, but I wouldn't say they are worried at this point," Bailey said, noting that 27 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit is the make-or-break overnight temperature for orchards.

"If nights stay somewhere in the 30s, we'll be OK," Bailey said. As long as the cooler weather doesn't get cold, and as long as things are given a chance to dry out, "we'll be able to manage around it to a certain extent."

Utah's first official harvest each year — alfalfa — already would have been under way in Utah County and in central to southern Utah area farms. Barley crops, on the other hand, do best in years that have cooler, wetter springs.

"Alfalfa actually does well under these conditions, to a point," Bailey said. "But when it's ready to cut and you can't, and the weather continues to be wet and cool, fields stay muddy and can't dry out. And even after it's cut, the hay must dry out completely before it can be baled; otherwise, it can become moldy and useless."

With Utah's alfalfa regarded as the premium source of cattle feed in California, Texas and Idaho, "farmers are really anxious to get going on the first crop," Bailey said. But in Utah, which is basically an irrigated desert, "most farmers are just grateful for the moisture; it just lengthens the whole process," he added.

Things are growing slowly for sure, said Jack Wilbur, with the Utah Fruit and Vegetable Association. The other worry, he said, is the cold may have daunted the bees and kept them from pollinating to the extent needed to get a good crop. "Right now, it looks like everything is just going to take longer."

Warm weather that is on the way later this week might help speed things up.

Today through Thursday is forecast to be mostly sunny in the Salt Lake area, with highs reaching 70 today, the upper 70s on Wednesday and near 80 on Thursday.

Friday will have a slight chance of showers and temperatures in the mid-70s. Saturday will only reach the mid-60s and will feature a chance of rain.

Sunday should be mostly sunny, with a high near 68 degrees.

The Salt Lake Office of the National Weather Service reported that 0.2 inches of snow fell early Monday at the airport, shattering the previous record for the latest snowfall by six days. The date of that previous record was May 18, 1977, when 0.5 inches fell, and also May 18, 1960, when 1 inch was recorded at the airport.

Several inches of snow fell on portions of the east side of Salt Lake City and Bountiful. And the unseasonably cold storm not only produced snow, but also lots of rain.

Bountiful had received 1.12 inches by 9 a.m. Monday, while Provo had 1.05 inches; the University of Utah had 0.86 inch; Farmington had 0.85 inch; Sandy had 0.78 inch; and Layton had 0.75 inch.

The mountains received much more moisture. Snowbird Ski Resort got 6 inches of snow from Sunday morning until about 8:30 a.m. Monday. Its base depth of snow is still over 10 feet, at 123 inches of snow.

Snow wasn't the only unusual weather phenomenon, either. Five Utah locations broke or tied all-time low temperature records Monday morning.

Bountiful dipped to 33 degrees to exceed the previous record for May 24 of 40 degrees, set in 2002. The Salt Lake airport was also 33 degrees, to break the old record of 36 degrees, set in 1966.

Bullfrog was only 40 degrees, for a new record, and Brighton just 15 degrees. Alpine temperatures sank to 32 degrees, to tie a 2002 record for the date.

May has been unusually cool so far, with the month only boasting four days at or above normal temperatures.

Contributing: Lynn Arave and Aaron Falk

e-mail: rodger@desnews.com; jthalman@desnews.com