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Spring weather variations will make or break local fruit crop

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Photo by Tamie Meck Lee Bradley and son Ryan inspect cherry buds at Orchard Valley Farms near Paonia. After referencing bud charts, they do not anticipate an early bloom for his crops this spring. Lee Bradley started growing fruit in 1991 and is the winem

Spring has arrived, and in the North Fork Valley the wild apricots are in full bloom. And while it's a time of celebration, springtime can be tense for the area's fruit growers. With warm weather comes tender buds that will grow to produce delicious, valuable crops, but only if the conditions are right. A cold snap can destroy an entire crop in a matter of hours. For those living near orchards, it's not uncommon to hear the hum of wind turbines on cold spring mornings.

But Lee Bradley said he doesn't worry about the weather, or mark the days that his fruit trees bud and blossom. Bradley and wife Kathy operate Orchard Valley Farms and Black Bridge Winery just north of Paonia. Bradley began growing fruit in 1991, but got serious about farming in 2000 when he survived a life scare that included a successful bone marrow transplant. In 2004 he became a licensed winemaker.

Named after the iron truss bridge that crosses the North Fork of the Gunnison River at the entrance to the property, the Bradleys leased the Black Bridge property from Bowie before purchasing it in 2010. Bradley and son Ryan grow 10 varieties of peaches on 25 acres, two acres of sweet cherries, one acre of apples, some plums and berries, and eight acres of wine grapes. They also grow an annual vegetable garden and pumpkin patch for the U-pick crowd. While they truck the bulk of their fruit to a packing plant, some of it is sold at the Orchard Valley Farmer's market, which is open Memorial Day through Halloween.

The location of their farm is ideal for growing fruit, said Bradley. "We have this million dollar breeze." Similar to what makes Palisade the ideal climate for its peaches, the breeze blows down the valley every morning, preventing deadly frost from settling on the buds. The Bradleys invested in a wind machine a few years ago ("Those things aren't cheap," he says), mostly to protect the peaches. When the wind stops blowing, "That's when the wind machine really helps."

They used to grow apricots, but because they're the first fruit trees to bud out, they are more likely than not to freeze. Fruit growers deal with a lot of variables, said Bradley. "Every year it's a new situation. One year there isn't enough water, the next there's no labor." But each year, somehow, some way, the Bradleys have something to harvest and sell. A few years back a December freeze killed everything but his wine grapes. The vines were lying on the ground covered in snow. "They stood up in the spring and I got a good crop of chardonnay," he said.

Last year was a banner year for the area's fruit growers. But despite the biggest harvests since Bradley began farming (they harvested some 400 bins of peaches), it wasn't the best year for business.

About one quarter of the expenses occur before there's even a crop, he said. "Last year, thinning costs were enormous," said Bradley. By harvest time there were more peaches than the market could bear, and bins of peaches went to waste. With increased costs in harvesting, shipping and boxes, they about broke even on their peach crop. On top of that, finding enough labor to do everything needed to get the crops to market was almost impossible, he said.

While some worry that with spring weather arriving earlier every year, Bradley said he's not overly concerned or investing in the latest technology that will delay budding and blooming. He doesn't worry about the weather. He does, however, purchase federal multiple-peril crop insurance to cover losses from natural disasters like freezes and hail, drought, and even earthquakes.

Like all of the area growers, during spring Bradley goes out daily to inspects the buds. The cherries tend to bud out first. He refers not to a calendar, but to a bud development chart illustrating the different stages of development, from dormancy to the setting of the fruit. The stages coincide with temperature ranges identifying the low temperature that can kill either 10 or 90 percent of the buds, based on Colorado State University and other co-op Extension research. If the temperature drops into one of those ranges, the wind machine is set to come on.

If temperatures plummet below the 90 percent kill rate, "there's really no reason to run the machine." So far this season, he said, knocking on wood, "Things look good."

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