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Spring storm threatens to damage Utah’s fruit crop

PERRY, Utah – As this wet, spring storm rolls in and gets colder, Utah fruit growers are keeping a close eye on the temperatures the next couple of mornings. The success of the crop in big orchards and the tree in your backyard hinges on a few degrees. Several fruit growers said the upcoming weekend would be a nail-biter.

“Blossoms are in full bloom,” said Jordan Riley, who grows fruit for Rileys Farm Fresh in Perry.

Fruit trees, including cherries, peaches and apples, are in bloom all across the Wasatch Front. That’s when the bud is most vulnerable to the cold, said Riley.

“Freezing is just the act of losing heat,” he said. “So, if that blossom is closed up, that’s holding onto heat. Right here, this block is full bloom, all the way open,” he said pointing to the orchard in front of him. “So, it’s more vulnerable, and once those petals fall off, it’s just that much more vulnerable.”

Approximately 6,000 acres of farmland statewide are in fruit production, according to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. Annually, tart cherries are a $17.5 million business in Utah, followed by peaches which generate $6.9 million in sales each year.

Many peach blossoms in Utah lost their fruit in a cold snap, last month. The peach crop was hurt more in Utah County than Box Elder County, Riley said, because the trees bloom earlier in Utah County.

Fruit growers, like Riley, are especially nervous about the temperatures forecast for Saturday morning. If the mercury stays around 30 degrees, the fruit crop should be OK. When the temperatures drop below that, fruit can be damaged.

“It’s a cold, crisp clear sky that usually takes the crop,” he said.

Peaches, apricots and cherries are the most vulnerable now. But, he’s also worried about another part of the fruit producing equation: pollination.

“We are right now standing next to thousands of bees,” he said, pointing to several boxed hives.

But, they’re not out buzzing until the temperature hits 50. That’s a problem for the fruit crop.

“The day I wanted those bees the most when they were on a semi truck coming to Utah,” he said.

He had a tough time getting the bees out of rainy California in time to pollinate their apricot crop.

“When the apricots were in full bloom, we were rushing to get them out of the almond groves and it was a couple states away.”

He’ll won’t know how much of the apricot crop he lost for a couple of months.

“There is no way to tell until you see fruit,” he said. “Fruits that were not pollinated will shrivel up and fall off. The others will start to grow.”

This week, professional growers will blow warm air through their orchards to save the fruit. At home, if the tree isn’t too big, Riley recommends throwing a tarp over it. He says that can make a difference.

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