Protecting the Fragile Fruit

May 19, 2003 11:00 pm

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

When the mid-May dusk slinks in, disguised as frigid February, Carol Colpitts rests her head against the pillow and settles in for the fitful slumber of the worried.

Warm in the chilly dark, she knows the alarm might at any moment shatter the sleepy silence with its warning blare.

With their fruit in peril, and thus their livelihood, either Carol or her husband, Ed, must shed the toasty sheets and protect the tender trees.

There's 1,200 of them, each one bearing a valuable burden of blossoms or baby fruit, each one susceptible to the fatal power of spring frost.

The Colpittses own Eagle Creek Orchards, about half a mile downstream from New Bridge. They grow more fruit than anyone in Baker County — of their 1,200 trees, 640 produce peaches, the others bushels of cherries, apricots, plums, apples, nectarines and pears.

When spring weather threatens treachery, as it did during this past winter-like weekend, the couple makes sure before turning in that their alarm is turned on.

Except the alarm doesn't mark time.

It tracks temperature.

When the thermometer outside drops to within a degree of the limit the Colpittses set, the alarm jangles them awake.

One or the other fires up the propane-powered Chevrolet V-8 engine that drives their tree-saving wind machine.

The Chevy motor spins a massive fan that pulls warmer air from the slightly higher ground around the orchard and blows it between the rows of trees, Carol said.

The fan, designed for 10 acres, promptly raises the temperature by about three degrees around the Colpittses' five-acre orchard, Carol said Monday afternoon, several hours after the fan saved their trees from the morning's record cold.

She expects a bumper crop come summer and fall.

The danger temperature varies depending on the time of year, and on the growth stage of the trees, Carol said.

"Right now we're in the full bloom to small fruit stage, and 28 degrees is as cold as we can let it get without risking damage," she said.

Were the temperature to dip below that level, frost could kill the tender blooms and ruin the fledgling fruit, and the couple could lose the entire year's crop.

The alarm and the V-8-powered fan help to prevent such a catastrophe, Carol said.

But those are just tools.

The Colpittses need also to maintain the unflinching vigilance of Army sentries; and during this unusually frosty spring, vigilance means they never venture far from their vulnerable thickets when the evening air puckers the skin.

"We just can't take a chance," Carol said.

The vigil actually starts in early March.

At that time the trees have only recently awakened from their winter's dormancy, and the temperature can plummet all the way to 18 before the alarm disturbs the Colpittses' dreams.

The target temperature rises as the trees progress through seven stages, Carol said.

The Chevy motor has roared about 10 times this spring, she said — the second-highest tally in the five years since the couple's eight-year-old trees first bore fruit.

"It's been kind of a long, cold spring," Carol said.

But so far neither cold enough nor long enough to seriously harm Baker County's $49-million-per-year agriculture industry, said Jay Carr of the Oregon State University Extension Service office in Baker City.

Frigid temperatures Sunday and Monday mornings might have nipped some alfalfa, but "it's early enough in the year that it'll come back," Carr said.

"Potatoes aren't up yet so they're not affected, and grain's not far enough along to be a problem," he said.

But Carr said fruit tree owners in Baker Valley, where temperatures fell several degrees farther than in Eagle Valley, might not fare as well as the Colpittses'.

Temperatures were cold enough to severely damage, if not kill outright, fruit tree blossoms, Carr said.

"I'd be awful surprised if we have much fruit this year," he said Monday.

Hardy flowers such as tulips and daffodils probably will withstand the weather with at worst some temporary wilting, Carr said.

But other species, including the lilacs that recently began blooming in the valley, are susceptible.

"This can sure zap 'em," Carr said.

And how many people own a Chevy-powered fan?