It’s not hard to spot Ric Valicoff’s apricot plantings as you drive past the orchards near Zillah.
The white blossoms were visible this past week amid other fruit trees and grapevines that are still sleeping off winter.
Normally the first fruit to come into bloom in the area, apricots in the Yakima Valley are getting a head start on the growing season due to unseasonably warm weather in recent weeks.
“Normal is around March 24,” Valicoff said, consulting a growing chart. “We’re almost three weeks early.”
While most people enjoy early warm weather, for growers like Valicoff it can be a mixed blessing. It means getting a running start on the fruit season, but it also requires orchardists to be vigilant lest a sudden drop in temperature nip the crop in the bud.
While some of the Valley’s early crops, such as asparagus, are not showing any immediate signs of waking up, those growers are also watching the weather reports.
In normal years, Yakima averages about 36.1 degrees in February and 43.2 degrees in March, according to climate data from the National Weather Service’s Pendleton, Ore., office.
This year, February averaged 38.8 degrees, with a high of 66 degrees on Feb. 28 and a low of 15 on Feb. 20, according to the weather service. So far, March temperatures have been in the low 50s to upper 60s, weather service data shows.
The warmer weather means plants and trees are starting to come out of their winter dormancy and put forth leaves and buds.
Valicoff said his apricot orchard in Zillah was expected to go into full bloom Thursday, well ahead of the usual schedule. A drive by the area showed numerous trees with open blossoms. That has meant scrambling for bees to pollinate the trees.
Warm weather can mean a better fruit season, said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission.
“I feel the more fruit we get out before the Fourth of July, the better,” said Thurlby. Apricots are the first tree fruit to come into bloom, he said, with cherries typically following in April.
Washington is the nation’s second-largest producer of apricots, Thurlby said, but it is a distant second to California, which produces 7 million boxes of the fruit annually compared to Washington’s half-million boxes.
But economics are not the only concern. Thurlby and Valicoff said weather is still a significant factor. While temperatures have been on the warm side, Valicoff and Thurlby warn that the blossoms are particularly vulnerable to a sudden temperature drop.
If temperatures dip significantly below freezing, the buds could be damaged, causing a loss in fruit. Weather forecasts show low temperatures dropping to 24 degrees Sunday and increasing to 33 by Thursday.
“The apricot growers will be on full alert for cool nights,” Thurlby said. “By the time we get to May, we’re pretty safe on frost damage.”
“That is pretty critical at this point,” Valicoff said. “Now, we are going to have to look at protecting those flowers at 28 degrees.”
The first line of defense is wind machines in the orchards. The propane-powered fans pull relatively warmer air down into the orchard, mixing it with the cold air at ground level to warm up the area. The machines can heat up the area around the plants by as much as five degrees, Valicoff said.
And if that is not enough, smudge pots can be deployed in the orchards to further warm up the air, he said.
Asparagus and hops
Another early crop in Yakima is asparagus, with harvest starting in mid-April. Jon Nishi, a member of the Washington Asparagus Commission’s board and a grower in Zillah, said he has not yet seen any signs of growth in his fields, even with the warm weather.
“It is rare to get anything before the first part of April,” Nishi said.
Like Valicoff, he also watches the weather, as a sudden frost can kill off sprouting asparagus. Unlike fruit trees, asparagus growers can cut off the frozen parts of the perennial plants and start over again, a process that takes about a week.
But Nishi said a plant that has been shocked that way doesn’t do as well.
There have been no indications that the warm weather has encouraged hops, one of the Valley’s major crops, to begin their annual growth cycle, said Jaki Brophy, communications director for the Yakima-based Hop Growers of America.
Regardless of whether the hops start growing earlier or later, the season seems to even out, with hops being harvested in September, Brophy said.
When the Valley was hit with a blizzard last year, Brophy said there were some newly planted hop plants that had issues, but the older, established plants were heartier and able to ride out the foul weather.