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Cold spell decimates late apple harvest in Columbia Gorge

Cherry growers 'dodge a bullet'

Cherry growers apparently "dodged a bullet" with the arctic cold that hit this region in late October, but late-season apple growers across the Northwest suffered heavy losses, and consumers may soon see the result in higher prices.

Lynn Long, an Oregon State University extension agent for Wasco County who specializes in orchard production, and local growers agreed the cold snap apparently inflicted little damage to cherry trees, although they caution it may be spring before they can tell for certain.

Long waited a few days after the cold spell ended because it often takes that long for freeze damage to become apparent.

Early-morning temperatures hovered around 15 degrees over several days last week, and orchardists in Dallesport and along Mill Creek reported lows of 6 degrees.

"Those are pretty substantial temperatures," Long said. "Six degrees would be disconcerting even in December, but to have that in October - that's cause for concern."

But his inspection of local cherry orchards suggests the trees emerged none the worse for the sudden chill.

"It looks like we've dodged a bullet here," Long said.

Younger trees were at particular risk, since they don't enter dormancy as early as older trees; thus, not only the fruit buds for next year's crop (which actually form in July) but the wood itself were susceptible, Long added.

"But the buds were still nice and green," he said, suggesting the trees had "hardened" before the deep freeze hit.

It was a different story for late-season apples, though, not only in Wasco County but across the Pacific Northwest.

Fuji apple grower John Carter of The Dalles lost his entire crop.

"We've had one weather disaster after another," Carter said, referring also to an ill-timed rainstorm that wiped out much of the cherry crop early last summer. "We're almost getting used to it."

Carter had harvested most of his apples before the cold hit, but all of his late-season Fujis -- seven or eight acres -- remained on the trees.

"They're toast," said John's wife and orchard co-owner, Karen Carter.

"We tried to salvage, but had to quit picking," said Linda Omeg of The Dalles, referring to her family's Braeburn apple crop.

The freeze had damaged the fruit's flavor, destroying its market value. It's the first time she's seen such low temperatures, so early in the season, for so many consecutive days.

Across the region, John Carter said late-season apple growers lost between 200,000 and 300,000 bins of such varieties as Fuji, Braeburns and Granny Smith. The vast majority of that damage occurred in Washington State.

"It's a pretty big deal," Carter added, noting the resulting shortage is already starting to drive up prices.

Carter also raises cherries, and, like Lynn Long, said growers "dodged a bullet" with the cold spell.

"There is some damage, but it seems to be relatively minor," Carter said.

Another unknown at this point involves ornamentals, particularly those which are only marginally suited to this climate in the first place.

Long doesn't yet have an assessment on that topic. The freezing temperatures arrived before many trees around The Dalles had yet acquired their autumn colors: green leaves froze on the branches and have not yet fallen to the ground.

"I think most will be okay," Long said, but suggested some non-native plants may be damaged.

"I know I have some damage on some of my own shrubs," he said.


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