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Orchardists beat back blight

Rogue Valley growers are getting a bit of respite after a string of hot summers helped unleash fire blight in local orchards.

Orchardists whittled away on branches, removed some trees and got help from a cooler spring. Nonetheless, the common pome fruit disease has taken a nibble out of this year's crop.

"For the last three years, we've had record epidemics," said veteran Talent grower Ron Meyer. "This year is maybe 5 percent of what we had last year."

Fire blight is a system bacteria giving infected leaves a burnt look. If infected areas aren't pruned, the trees eventually will die.

"It isn't over yet," said Mike Naumes, president of Naumes Inc., one of the largest growers in the U.S. "There's still a little around, but it's nothing like we had the last couple of years."

Naumes said his company lost between 400 and 500 trees to blight, a relatively small portion of close to 30,000 in local blocks.

"Sometimes it lies dormant, waiting for things to heat up," Naumes said. "You never know, it all depends on weather. When it's hot during bloom time, we can have some severe problems. The worst thing is losing your trees, and we all lost a fair amount of trees."

Most of the eradication was done right after harvest, he said.

This spring's cooler weather helped keep the blight in check.

"It's a problem that we don't have many answers for," Naumes said. "And we don't have very good chemicals either."

Meyer thinks a new chemical produced by German firm BASF may help control future damage.

"It goes into the tree systemically and kills fire blight bacteria," he said.

Associated Fruit's orchard crew battled the blight through 2016 and beyond, said President Doug Lowry.

"We feel we have it pretty well in hand," Lowry said. "But during the hot season it can flare up."

Lowry said blight destroyed a third of his firm's 500 acres.

"If it's not managed correctly, it can take over a whole orchard," Lowry said. "You have to address it or it turns into a nightmare."

Blight can force removal of a branch or section of a tree.

"Sometimes, you just start cutting back on a tree until you don't find blight," Lowry said. "It might be half a tree, or the whole thing."

Gary Hubler has been removing old trees from a 21-acre orchard he acquired on Voorhies Road.

"I had to take the trees out because the blight was so bad," Hubler said.

He intends to replant but isn't sure when.

"Northwest Packing in Vancouver, Washington, would like more green Bartletts for its cannery," Hubler said.

He's also considering red or green D'Anjous.

 — 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.

Avel Moya piles up blight-affected pear trees Wednesday at an orchard off Voorhies Road in Medford. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]