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Optimism in bloom

A string of drought years had producing angst among Southern Oregon orchardists, large and small. Then came this winter's El Nino, which brought periods of heavy snow mixed with extended periods of rain.

The moisture was a welcome sight, but after a while it got a little tedious, admits Ron Meyer, the dean of the region's pear growers, who oversees pear orchards on most of his 115 acres outside Talent.

"This year we had so much rain I started complaining about it, which I thought I would never do (after the dry years)," Meyer said. "But the ground is saturated, the reservoirs are getting full enough that we do not have to worry about irrigation the rest of this year. We have warm weather, it's going to be an early season, and fortunately the cool, wet weather came before the trees had bloom."

The bloom came early, but the shimmer of pear blossoms remains in much of the Rogue Valley, and early signs point to a good year for the industry.

"This was more of a standard winter than we've seen in a long time," said Doug Lowry of Associated Fruit, which operates 500 acres of orchards. "The warm weather has been good for pollination, because the bees have gone out and into the blossoms. There is concern with blight activity associated with warmer weather, but all and all, I feel like it's a good spring."

The last round of wintry weather delayed pruning in some quarters, but most operations have caught up, he said.

With temperatures pushing into the 80s this week, it would be easy to forget the region's climatic tendencies. To this point, there has been little reason to fire up orchard furnaces to fend off frost.

"We have not had any severe frost yet, however, we have another month of frost season, so we don't want to become complacent," Meyer said. "Traditionally, the last two weeks of April are when we get our worst freezes, so we really don't know what's coming. Frost is the biggest reason for crop failure here in the Rogue Valley."

Meyer, a 78-year-old, third-generation orchardist, has vivid memories of what can happen to growers caught unprepared for freezes.

His grandfather began working what became a 70-acre orchard in 1910. For 44 years, frost was a nonevent in the Wagner Creek drainage.

"Then on May 1, 1954, my buddy and I went fishing up in the Applegate," Meyer recalled. "We came home to find the whole crop was gone."

He was 16.

In the intervening years, frost has made regular visits.

"Between 1954 and 1972, we had a freeze three out of every five years," he said. "These things run in cycles, so I don't get too excited about climate change — at least not yet."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31

Ron Meyer checks pear blossoms Wednesday at one of his orchards in Talent. A wet winter and a warm spring have orchardists upbeat about the potential for this year's crop. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch