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Spring snow storm shocks blooming cherry orchards in Hood River

An early bloom combined with late-season snow is putting fruit crops in the Hood River Valley at risk.

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — A week ago, Theresa Draper breathed in the balmy air as honey bees zipped from flower to flower in her cherry orchard just outside Hood River. All of her fruit trees were blooming a little early, thanks to a stretch of late winter warmth. Temperatures were in the 60s and life was good.

That changed this week when a record-breaking spring storm dumped nine inches of snow in the Hood River Valley. Now, Draper goes from tree to tree counting the blossoms that have died, and will not bear fruit.

“When I look outside, I see January,” said Draper, who owns Draper Girls' Country Farm in Mt. Hood Parkdale. “Just plain worry because we don't typically get this weather around blossom time. We never get snow.”

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In a typical year, Draper said they usually have a couple of cold nights this late in the season. She said in those conditions, they can protect young blossoms with special orchard fans that keep most frost from settling on the trees. But Draper said they can't run the tall fans when it's really windy, which is often the case when it snows in her region.

It's why Draper fears she will lose about a quarter of her cherry crop and sustain some damage to the rest.

“The fruit could be marked-up this year,” said Draper. “But hopefully it would be better to have marked-up fruit than no fruit.”

At Hood River Cherry Company, workers are paying close attention to their crops, which produce about 4.5 million pounds of fruit each year.

“It's nerve-racking. It's very nerve-racking,” said warehouse manager and orchards supervisor, Kristoff Fowler.

Fowler estimates that about 80% of the valley's orchard trees are now in bloom. He figures about 30% of his company’s tress are blooming because they grow at a slightly higher elevation in colder conditions. Buds that haven’t yet bloomed are less at risk of freezing.

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“The blossoms and the ovule will actually die when it's around 29 degrees,” said Fowler. “And so the night temperatures have been hitting around 28.5 to 29 degrees so it's borderline. You might get about 20% of your crops, damaged."

Fowler said despite the critical cold snap, he believes most crops will come to fruition. He hopes things aren't as bad as they might seem.

"A lot of people go to Vegas to gamble,” said Fowler. “But farmers, they kind of gamble every year.”

For Draper, every blossom that survives this year is a win, but she’s already thinking about next year. She’s considering buying propane heaters to place along the perimeter of the orchard in case of another spring snow.

“I've never really felt like we needed them,” said Draper. “But after this year, I’m really thinking that through.”

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