Mid-Columbia farmers armed with wind machines and irrigation water worked early Thursday to protect tender cherry blossoms and budding grape vines from chilly spring temperatures.
Temperatures dropping to the high 20s and low 30s aren’t unusual for this time of year. But many Mid-Columbia crops are ahead of normal thanks to a mild winter and warm spring, making them more susceptible to cold.
While some areas hit below freezing early Thursday, it wasn’t widespread or severe, said Nic Loyd, Washington State University's AgWeatherNet meteorologist. In Pasco and Prosser, temperatures reached about 31 degrees.
Many areas hovered on the border of freezing temperatures, and farmers had some help from “nature’s wind machine,” since wind kept the air moving and prevented temperatures from dropping as low as they could have, he said.
The frost risk is expected to continue through the weekend, Loyd said. Friday morning was predicted to be similar to Thursday.
Cherry trees at Gordon Brothers orchards in Franklin County reached full bloom this week, about 10 days earlier than usual.
Right now, those blossoms could be damaged if the temperature drops to 28 degrees or below, said Marc Nelson, Gordon Brothers vice president.
But the farm, near the Snake River, stayed at about 34 degrees early Thursday, with one low area dropping to 30. Still, he sprayed some irrigation water for frost control because a layer of ice will insulate a plant.
The grapevines did well, since even colder temperatures would have to be reached to damage them in their current stage of development, he said. Buds are just beginning to unfurl.
It was only the second time he had to run water for frost control, which isn’t bad. But Mid-Columbia orchards aren’t free from the risk until Mother’s Day.
At T&R Farms in Franklin County, farmer Ron Reimann said part of his orchard hit just under 30 degrees briefly early Thursday, but wind machines were enough to protect the buds from frost damage.
Reimann’s apples are two weeks ahead of last year and three weeks ahead of the year before. Unlike the cherries in nearby orchards, the apple trees haven’t bloomed yet, but Reimann said he expects them to do so shortly.
“This is very rare,” he said.
If the good weather continues, Reimann said his Gala apples may be ready to pick in August instead of September.
Even his wheat is early, and that may be harvested in June instead of late July or August.
Cherries could stay a week ahead of schedule, depending on the weather, Nelson said. Typically, harvest is about 65 days after the full bloom.
But he is concerned because cherry orchards in the Tri-City, Yakima and Wenatchee areas are all hitting bloom around the same time, which could mean that everyone will be picking at the same time.
When that happened a couple years ago, it was difficult to find workers and the packing facilities couldn’t keep up.
Nelson said he has had no issues finding workers yet. He has a small local crew of up to 10 people who help with pruning and other prep work in the vineyards and orchards. But he’ll need about 100 workers to pick his cherries when they ripen.
Although Grandview farmer Tim Grow’s Concord grapes are nearly two weeks ahead of normal, he isn’t as worried about finding labor as some cherry farmers, since he mechanically harvests his grapes. But cherries are all picked by hand, making finding enough workers key.
Grow’s juice grapes hit bud break last week. So did many Tri-City area wine grape vineyards.
Although that creates an added concern about frost, the vines in the lower lying areas that tend to get colder are not as far along, making the chance of frost damage less, Grow said. But he still ran wind machines as a precautionary measure.
The buds can take temperatures around 25 to 27 at their current stage, but that will change once they open up more and unfurl their leaves, he said.
If the trend continues, Grow said he could mechanically harvest his grapes as soon as the last week of August, which is incredibly early.
He suspects he’ll more likely wait to pick until the first week of September.