The other night as I read EAGER, a fantastic book about beavers, the whir of helicopter blades floated through my closed window. My first thoughts flitted to the Coast Guard who sometimes troll the Lakeshore in their helicopter, searching for a boat in peril. But when the sound didn’t fade, I realized our neighbor’s wind machines had kicked on. Glancing at the outdoor thermometer, the temperature registered at 39 degrees.
The tall windmills on our neighbor’s farm were stirring the air in his sweet cherry and apple orchard. Most frost settles on a clear night when the wind dies down, and the temperature drops to 32 degrees. The movement of air disturbs the process and limits the severity of the killing freeze. Farmers also welcome cloud cover that traps warm air near the earth. Our friend who grows rhododendrons sets her irrigation system to turn on at 36 degrees. As the sprinklers spray her plants with water, ice forms, protecting the flower buds.
Because our blueberry plants bloom from mid-May to early-June, I assumed that the developing frost wouldn’t harm this year’s crop. But our plants and those of other blueberry farmers throughout Allegan and Van Buren Counties had already suffered from the Polar Vortex. While most folks have tossed aside the memories of below zero temperatures, raging winds and mounds of snow, the frigid week in January haunts fruit farmers.
Beginning at the end of April and continuing into the autumn, Michigan State University Extension Services send out a small fruit newsletter on Wednesday afternoon. While the narrative is aimed at conventional farmers, with few advice for the organic grower, the letter provides important information. Usually, writer describes the current state of crop development in different fruits, what pests and diseases have erupted, and he recommends certain actions. This week’s letter described how the subzero temperatures experienced during late January had destroyed blueberry buds. Most fruiting plants send out a “king bloom”, the first buds to open that are larger and usually produce bigger fruit. The writer had sliced open dozens of “king” buds and learned that many had been killed during the Polar Vortex. Of course, he couldn’t predict the extent of the damage in individual fields, so he suggested that farmers follow his example and examine the buds on their bushes.
John and I decided not to do this, because so many variables between now and harvest will determine the size of our blueberry crop. Instead, we will march forward, determined to grow the best tasting blueberries. Yet, already, our neighbor and John had checked the buds on our peach trees and learned how the winter had killed most of the blossoms. In that situation, the wind chills during late January harmed the fragile peach buds. So we will have no peaches to sell this year.
The wind can blow as either enemy or ally. My neighbor’s wind machines continued to chop the air. I closed my book, hoping the night would not bring more damage to our fruit and to the other farms spread across the Lakeshore.
PS: If you want to learn more about the power of wind, here is a podcast I wrote for our local NPR affiliate, WMUK.