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Fruit crops are hit or miss in Delta County

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Colorado's fruit and vegetable industry provides some $300 million to the state's economy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Delta County, where more than 1,000 farms produce crops ranging from greenhouse plants to cattle feed, fruit growers have been on high alert this spring, losing sleep, closely monitoring temperatures, and doing all they can to protect their valuable crops.

A representative of the USDA Farm Services Agency office in Delta said they've had a few loss claims submitted, but it's just too early to tell what the total losses will be.

At Orchard Valley Farms and Black Bridge Winery just north of Paonia, owner Lee Bradley was busy preparing the market for this Friday's season-opening. They lost most of their stone fruits -- cherries, plums, peaches --about three weeks ago when early-morning temperatures dipped well below freezing for about three hours, said Bradley. There may be some fruit left on the branches, he said, but not enough to ship to market.

Bradley also grows a large crop of wine grapes, which were doing great following last Thursday morning's snowfall, said Bradley. But a dip in the temperature to 30 degrees or lower could wipe them out. Between crop insurance and the Orchard Valley Farms Market where they sell a large selection of their wines and fresh vegetables grown in their one-acre garden, they'll get through the season, said Bradley.

Just down the road at Delicious Orchards on Highway 133, Jeff Schwartz said the fruit crop is looking really good. "We have a bumper cherry crop, and plums look great," he said. Interestingly enough, they are also his two most sensitive crops, and they look the best. The sweet cherries are loaded, he said. A rare, "20 to 40 year crop."

It's been a pretty long and sustained spring, "but just on the good side" of freezing temperatures, said Schwartz. Between the cool nights and the two to three inches of snow that fell on the orchard last week, "It's a perfect storm. It's cold, but not critical, which actually helps to sweeten the fruit.

They aren't out of the woods yet, and were concerned when last week's weather forecast called for a low of 27 degrees. Temperatures of around 30 degrees are critical. Around 28-29 degrees measurable losses occur. "It's a tight margin," he said. If temperatures dip to 26 degrees, even briefly, that could spell total losses.

There have been about a half dozen nights this spring that they used their wind machines, said Schwartz. Because temperature inversions, when warm air up high traps the cold air below, the warmer air was pulled down by the fan blades, and the crops survived.

On those cold nights they also fired up some 60 propane heaters and lit about 100 wood/coal fires in barrels. The fires are much more effective than the heaters, said Schwartz. It takes a lot of work to get them going, "but they put out more heat."

In Cedaredge, Williams Orchards grows 300 acres of apples, peaches and pears at 6,130 feet in elevation. The fifth generation of the Williams family now operates the family business. Connie Williams was hard to reach, but did say that they have "fought like hell" to keep crops from freezing this year. As a result, they are very close to producing crops similar to last year, which was one of the best harvests in recent years.

Steve Ela, a fourth-generation fruit grower at Ela Family Farms on Rogers Mesa, grows organic peaches, pears, cherries, apples and more on 99 acres. While Ela was also unavailable, Margaret at Ela Family Farms said he was putting into his orchards what most people don't see or realize when they purchase a piece of fruit: a lot of hard work and some sleepless nights.

The early frosts that decimated Orchard Valley Farms thinned their crops nicely, she said. Wind machines ran two nights late last week as temps dipped into the low 30s and high 20s, and the heavy snow, which downed tree limbs throughout the upper North Fork Valley, didn't damage their trees. "These trees are pruned so heavily," she said.

In short, "We will have a crop," said Margaret. But as Steve Ela would say when someone asks him in springtime how his crops are, she said, he would reply, "Ask me in June."

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