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Fruitful weather

You won't hear many complaints from Rogue Valley orchardists and vintners about the wet winter.

Medford already has exceeded the 18.35-inch annual average precipitation total with 21.04 inches since Oct. 1, when the water year began, and is 8.31 inches above the normal count for this time of year.

"It's a real positive when you get some early water," said Doug Lowry of Associated Fruit in Talent. "The winter weather is good for controlling insect populations and getting trees a lot of water."

Pear blossoms were already popping out by mid-March in 2016, but veteran orchardist Ron Meyer anticipates few orchards will be adorned in white the second weekend in April for the 64th annual Pear Blossom Festival.

"I think it's going to be a late season, very late," Meyer said. "At least three weeks later than last year. But if we get 70-degree days during the coming weeks, that can change very quickly."

The advantage of a late-arriving bloom is less time to worry about frost, but persistent precipitation prevented pear growers from winter pruning, something that could diminish fruit size.

"The rain doesn't bother the pear trees, but we have a hard time getting work done," Meyer said. "When it's raining, you can't prune because you can't look up and see what limb to cut off. When it snows, you can't tell which branches you want to keep and which ones to prune."

That's an important component, perhaps the most important, Meyer would argue, of keeping orchards economically viable.

"You thin out the limbs so the trees are not overloaded with fruit, because the market demands large sizes," Meyer said.

Shoots that grew out in 2016, setting fruit buds this summer, will begin producing fruit in 2018, he said. The productive sweet-spot is branches 3 to 5 years old.

"If you take out an older branch, you have to have something to replace it with," Meyer said. "Basically, you're constantly renewing the trees, rotating limbs so the tree is performing at its peak."

Lowry said some varieties are better than others at taking a pass on pruning.

"Summer fruit such as Bartlett and Comice really need to get pruned," he said. "If you're running behind, Bosc can get by without being as thorough. But it could hurt you on size, and that's an important element."

But you can't go multiple years without pruning or you'll have problems, Lowry said.

Southern Oregon grape growers are coming off their earliest harvest on record, but 2017 appears more typical. Despite sunshine last weekend, persistent precipitation has grape growers looking for a later bud break.

"We should be very happy with the rain we've gotten to this point," said Herb Quady, who manages several local vineyards. "Wetter soil generally means colder soils, a delayed bud break, and delayed harvest. Last year, we had a lot of sunny weather, and the soils heated up, leading to an early bud break."

Early bud breaks have their blessings and curses. Frost and mildew are hazards of an early break, but the resultant early harvest elicited more cheers than jeers.

Rain delayed mowing vineyard rows and removing cuttings, but was generally a good thing, Quady said.

"If vines get plenty of water over the winter, they tend to respond by setting larger crops," he said. "As long as the (wet) conditions don't persist too long into spring, it will be good."

Continued rain, however, could lead to mildew and slow ripening, Quady said. While vineyards are typically planted on slopes or well drained soil, plants in standing water have shallow root zones and are more susceptible to disease.

 — 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.

A pruner works an orchard Monday on Payne Road east of Phoenix. [Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta]