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Orchards fight frost

Rogue Valley orchard crews worked into the early hours Friday to protect sensitive pear blossoms from frost on the eve of the annual Pear Blossom Festival.

Some growers saw the temperature fall as low as 22 degrees as they struggled to keep their orchards warm enough to prevent the blossoms from freezing, and relatively little damage had been reported by midday. The official low at the Medford airport was 27, one degree short of the record low for April 9 of 26 degrees, set in 1933.

Forecasters were predicting temperatures as low as 26 degrees overnight before today's Pear Blossom parade, which may have meant another long night for orchard workers.

Luis Balero, superintendent at Associated Fruit Orchard, said the full complement of heaters and fans was deployed across 1,400 acres of pears in the early morning hours Friday, but it wasn't enough to keep the temperature above freezing.

"We worked and worked and worked, but we could only hold 27 (degrees)," Balero said. "We started lighting every heater at about 2 a.m. and they were running all night, until the sun came up."

Balero said Associated Fruit has about 3,500 heaters for its orchards, and each heater burns a gallon of diesel fuel per hour. He said it's expensive — and rare — for an orchard to use that many heaters during one night, but Thursday was one of those nights when it was necessary.

"It was one of the coldest nights I've seen in five years," Balero said.

Veteran orchardist Ron Meyer said the overnight frost was the coldest since 1972, when the valley's pear crop suffered extensive damage after the temperature plunged to 18 degrees.

"The difference now is that we have fans to help the heaters do their job," Meyer said. "This was the first bad frost we've had since starting to use fans "¦ it was their true test."

The giant fans circulate the air above the trees, preventing the coldest air from settling at the ground.

Meyer said the freeze didn't cause too much damage, and other larger-scale growers were similarly optimistic.

"We noticed a little bit but not a whole lot to worry about," said Meyer.

On clear nights, the lowest temperature typically occurs just before sunrise. Outlying areas at higher elevations saw temperatures down to the low 20s early Friday.

January's exceptionally warm temperatures led to early buds on many pear varieties. Frosts can occur until early May, so when the trees bloom early, orchardists have more nights to worry about damaging frosts.

This year marked the first early bloom in the Rogue Valley since 2005. Starting two weeks early, it's one of the earliest blooms in two decades, orchardists said.

Weary orchard workers should get a break tonight as warmer air settles across the region. Forecasters were expecting temperatures to warm into the 60s today, with an overnight low of 37 degrees predicted for Sunday morning.

Sam Wheeler is a Southern Oregon University intern. Reach him at intern1@mailtribune.com.