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Freeze hits younger apple trees hardest

Extent of damage to Washington crop may not be known until next year


Capital Press

EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Most of the apple trees in one of Andy Handley's orchards are dying.

Completely leafless, some are totally dead. Crispy, crinkled leaves adorn others but there's no fruit. Some have fruit but are dying more slowly.

"It might have been smart to pull it all out this spring, but I didn't know what we had," Handley said.

In a 15-acre block, he figures he's lost 80 percent of his Fuji and Granny Smith and 50 percent of his Gala trees, all 10 to 12 years old. But the 35-year-old Golden Delicious trees survived.

The killer was the pre-Thanksgiving Day freeze last November. Hundreds of acres of mostly young apple trees in central Washington died this spring. No one is tracking the exact amount but it apparently is not enough to drastically affect crop size.

Trees probably will still be dying next year from the freeze but losses will be nowhere near the heavy freeze losses of 1968 and 1969, said Kirk Mayer, manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.

But Spencer Strong, sales manager of Sage Fruit Co. in Yakima, said he's heard "plenty of reports of severe damage" on first-year trees.

"There's plenty of weather to go. As we get into the hot spell, we may see more (pre-harvest fruit) drop," Strong said.

Chemical and hand thinning haven't been as necessary this year because of good drop, he said. Red Delicious and Granny Smith appear to have decent drop while Gala appears to have the best fruit set industrywide, he said.

Handley said the Granny Smith trees appear to have suffered most from the freeze.

With weather remaining relatively warm late last fall, Handley said he stopped irrigating to help push his trees into dormancy. He didn't figure on the sudden freeze. With no moisture in sandy soil the roots of his trees were more susceptible to the cold. He learned newer Mark rootstock is more vulnerable than standard Malling 9.

"That's the price of being progressive. The Mark dies when it gets cold. We didn't know that. We do now," he said.

Not knowing the extent of the damage, Handley still did winter pruning in the orchard. Pre-bloom and post-bloom sprays were applied and he will spray for codling moth in summer. Otherwise, there's risk of pest infestations.

But come fall, he will rip out all but the Golden and some Braeburn, and plant new trees.

He's applying to the Farm Service Agency for a Tree Assistance Program grant. He figures it will cost him $10,000 to $12,000 an acre to remove and replant. The grant would pay 70 percent.

"It would be a huge help," he said.

Winter freezes also hit winegrapes and are a factor in the current pre-harvest drop of cherries.

Santina cherries may have been hit hardest by the freeze with drop as high as 40 percent in the Tri-Cities and Yakima, Strong said.

Chelan drop is 10 to 20 percent with 5 percent being normal, he said.

Drop is severe enough that Strong doubts the industry crop will reach the estimated 17.2-million, 20-pound boxes. Handley agrees the crop looks too light to reach that level.

It looks like a lot of areas will peak at 11-row size while 10.5 is preferred, but size is good for all the cool weather, Strong said.


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