Farmers Adapt to April Cold Snap

Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers
Jeff Heater looks outside his fruit truck

Climate change means new farming techniques and equipment. But having less severe weather than other states could give Oregon farmers an edge. 

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When temperatures in western Oregon dropped to the mid-20s earlier this month, Jeff Heater turned the water on. 

Heater, a cherry and apple grower and member of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers board of directors, ran the farm’s irrigation system in intervals over the coldest blocks, 15 acres at a time, on his 70-acre orchard. 

Since water emits heat as it changes from liquid to solid state in the cold weather, the short bursts of repeated heat is enough to make sure the fruit never reaches freezing temperature. 

Heater says this technique is more climate-friendly compared to using heaters, or industrial wind machines, which burn fossil fuels, something he says is worth the drawbacks. 

Heater also hires a weather forecaster to predict which nights will be particularly cold, and where the cold will hit the orchard most intensely. It’s an added expense, but one that he says pays for itself. 

“It’s just like buying life insurance. You’re playing the odds. If this kind of unseasonal cold weather happens every 50 years, then is it going to pay for itself? Maybe not,” Heater tells Oregon Business. “But if it happens every ten years it might pay off. Climate change is bringing these things along.” 

For Oregon farmers, frequent and chaotic weather events — like the cold snap that froze much of the state the week of April 15 — have become businesses as usual. A heat wave last summer saw some farmers installing new sprinklers to cool their crops and employees. In 2020, wildfires across the west caused air quality to suffer, and wine growers reporting grapes tainted by smoke damage.

Some farmers have found environmentally friendly, low-cost ways to mitigate the kind of unusual weather events that have become more common in recent years. For others, climate events mean investing in specialized, costly and occasionally carbon-heavy technology. But the investment could be worth it, as Oregon farms may have a competitive advantage compared to other states due to a more temperate climate. 

Heater says many growers in  Willamette Valley who are part of his organization, as well as vineyards, are set up with drip irrigation systems, designed to use as little water as possible, and will be looking for new ways to temperature-regulate their crops. 

Some growers have purchased wind machines costing around $30,000, which blow warm air downward onto cold crops. There are also only two companies that manufacture the machines and an ordering backlog from like-minded farmers purchasing the wind machines. Other farmers used oil-burning lamps, commonly referred to as “smudge pots’ to heat the land — another carbon-intensive and costly process. 

Farmers needing special machinery may face high costs and long wait times for their new equipment, says Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries. 

“Equipment is expensive and getting parts and even the piece of equipment has been compromised by severe supply chain issues,” says Stone. “Innovation is part of the game and Oregon [farmers] look for every advantage it can muster in a state that is quite expensive to do business in.” 

Despite the costs, he says having the right piece of technology for the current moment is essential for farms, which are, according to Stone, operating in a state that does not provide enough support to small farmers. 

When the dust settles, however, Heater expects many Oregon farmers to come out on top, due to their relative position compared to similar regions being harder-hit. 

“Right now, the guys in the Northwest are optimistic because whatever frost we had in the Gorge was way worse up in Washington,” Heater says. “There’s areas from tri-cities all the way up to Wenatchee that had enough freeze to see crop reduction. So everybody here is saying, ‘Hey, our crop could be worth some money. We may have only pears or cherries or even apples in the Northwest.” 

At least one sector of Oregon agriculture is predicting a difficult growing season this year. A wine consultant told the Oregonian half of Oregon’s grape growers could lose their crops due to the April freeze, potentially making the event more devastating for vintners than the 2020 wildfires.

Heater acknowledged the precarious situation faced by many small farms across the state. But he was optimistic Oregon’s investments in ecological innovation would pay dividends. 

“This old guy I remember had a famous line, that he’d seen his neighbors lose their crop three times in a spring, and still wind up picking enough fruit to be OK,” Heater jokes. 

“A lot of guys tend toward doom and gloom. But in the end, you ‘realize, oh, I guess it’s not as bad as I thought.’”

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