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Orchard Owners Take Action to Protect Crops From Cold

Bite into a piece of fruit from Springfield’s farmers market or the local grocery store, and chances are you’re eating something that was grown here in the Ozarks. But this year, the weather could take a bite out of the fruit crop, as temps could drop into the '20s over the next few nights. KSMU’s Benjamin Fry visited a local orchard to see how the owner there plans to protect his plants.

“I’m standing next to several rows of peach trees here at Ozark Mountain Orchard near Highlandville, Missouri. The tiny pink flowers are blooming on the branches as the fruits begin to grow. This is when the trees are the most vulnerable to the cold, and just a couple of degrees difference could determine the fate of this year’s crop."

“If it gets 28 degrees and they’re forecasting below that right now, we’ll lose ten percent of what’s out there. If it goes to 25 we’ll lose 90 percent.”

That’s Paul Lais.

He and his family have owned and operated this orchard for about eight years.

Besides peaches, they also grow apples, pears, plums, tomatoes and various berries.

Lais lives in Springfield, but lately he’s been at the orchard every day of the week preparing for the growing season.

“Pruning going on, then we go to thinning, weed control, we’re tilling, we’re planting,” Lais said.

Right now, Lais is concerned about his peach trees, which are at the mercy of an early spring cold snap.

The National Weather Service expects temperatures to dip into the ‘20s over the next few nights.

This looks to be a repeat of two years ago, when a couple of Lais's crops were devastated.

“It pretty much took out everything on the peaches. Strawberries it probably knocked out 70 to 80 percent of the strawberry crop,” Lais said.

That year, Lais had to work in town to make up for the lost profits.

“We’re pretty well dependent on the orchard for income,” Lais said.

But this year, he is optimistic the fuzzy fruit will get by with minimal loss. He’s got a couple of tools to protect his hundreds of peach trees.

One of them is easy to spot towering over the orchard - a 35 foot pole with a bright red propeller.

“That machine cranks up and it sounds about like a helicopter,” Lais said.

Lais says this wind machine will circulate warmed air across the ten acres of peach trees.

Several diesel-powered tanks provide the heat.

They’re called smudge pots and they’re scattered around the machine’s base.

“And the heat can go up and what this does is create an inversion, it puts a ceiling on it, and like I say, we’re trying to protect those couple of degrees, but it’s interesting out here in the middle of the night, everyone else is sleeping and you’re out here taking care of smudge pots and a wind machine,” Lais said.

Lais also uses a sprayer which is attached to a tractor.

As the device moves between the rows of peach trees, it creates a fog of liquid calcium which sticks to the plants.

Liquid calcium is a salt-like material which can’t freeze.

“So you try to coat the trees right at late in the day, is when I would spray that,” Lais said.

While these machines give Lais extra confidence, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that the cold could still take a heavy toll on production this year.

If that happens, he’ll have to buy from other orchards and resell the fruit.

But Lais says this wouldn’t change the price he charges.

“We’re gonna be in that $40 to $45 bushel range,” Lais said.

But Lais hopes to be selling his own crop, because he says it would cost him twice as much to buy and resell the fruit than it would to produce it.

For KSMU News, I’m Benjamin Fry