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Late Frosts Cause Large Losses at Local Farms

Erratic weather has local farmers scrambling to protect crops

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This spring's unseasonably late frosts have had home gardeners scrambling for sheets to drape over their shivering sprouts. But the erratic weather has been much more perilous for local farmers. When temperatures dipped to 28 degrees May 22, Peaceful Belly's Clay and Josie Erskine did something counterintuitive: They turned on the sprinklers.

"If you turn the water on right before it frosts ... the plants respirate or breathe through their leaves; how it works I don't know exactly, but the ice never physically touches the plant. There's a thin layer of air that forms between the ice and the plant," explained Josie.

The next morning, the Erskines woke up to find thin jackets of ice sliding off intact leaves on their 60-acre farm in the Dry Creek Valley. They only lost 10 percent of their total crop--edges where the sprinklers didn't reach.

"Our losses weren't big, but I lost 2,000 pepper plants and about 4,000 tomato plants," said Josie. "It seems like a ton, but I'm pretty happy."

Sweet Valley Organics didn't fare so well.

"We had our entire tomato crop freeze, which was about 4,000 plants," said Chris Florence of Sweet Valley Organics.

Peaceful Belly donated 870 of their remaining tomato starts to Sweet Valley, which also trucked in another load from a nursery in Portland, Ore., to make up for their losses.

"We're going to try to recover from it, but it's too early to say," said Florence. "We're hoping that we can bounce back and just replant and hopefully get back on track, but it definitely puts us behind."

For small organic farms like Sweet Valley and Peaceful Belly, one late frost has the potential to put them out of business.

"Every year you roll the dice," Florence said. "You put your plants out and there's some things you can do to protect them, but when it gets down to the mid-20s, most of those things just won't cut it."

And while veggie farms have the option of replanting, fruit orchards aren't so lucky.

"I plant annuals so if I lose my tomatoes, it's sad, but I could put some spinach in there," said Josie. "But an orchard can't do anything. And they still have to keep [up] maintenance--they still have to spray, they still have to mow, they still have to water, they still have to do all the work--yet they have absolutely no money coming off of the crop."

Eagle Creek Orchard in Eagle Valley, Ore.--the only certified organic orchard from La Grande through Boise--lost 90 percent of its stone fruit crop this year. Tiny buds on the orchard's apricots, peaches and plums got hit by a late frost.

"In March, the weather was incredibly warm here and all of the trees budded out," explained co-owner Linda Cordtz. "And then in April, it got cold again. ... There are patterns here that are kind of askew."

Linda and her husband, Rob, waged war against the frost with a wind machine, propane heaters, smudge pots, wood-fired heaters and sprinklers, burning through hundreds of gallons of fuel, but it wasn't enough.

"When you're so small, like we are, you're so vulnerable to something like this happening. ... I've had a lot of people tell me, 'Oh, I'm sorry for what happened, but that's the life of a farmer.' And you want to say, 'OK, how would you like to work for six months and then all the sudden, come pay day, you don't get paid?"

So, the Cordtzes are turning to their customers for help making it through this and future seasons. The couple launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $30,000 for a more modern frost protection system for their orchard.

"We had three choices: We could sell the orchard, we could go to the bank or we could do crowdsourcing, and we've been just absolutely blown away. Our focus for the whole crowdsourcing thing is to get a new frost protection system so that this won't happen again," said Linda.

But Eagle Creek wasn't the only fruit farm affected. Kelley Orchards in Weiser also lost a significant portion of peaches, nectarines and plums.

"We never lost that much in peaches. Probably 10 to 11 years ago, we might've lost 30 to 40 percent of a crop, but we never lost 70 to 80 percent," said owner Ron Kelley.

And unlike at larger commodity farms growing soy, wheat or corn, crop insurance doesn't come close to covering losses at small, organic farms.

"It really doesn't help the actual fruit farmers very much at all, especially organic, because they compensate you at the conventional levels and that's quite a bit different than organic," said Rob Cordtz.

Florence also said crop insurance doesn't make sense for his farm.

"If we bought insurance, it might cover 2 percent of the actual loss, so it does us no good," said Florence.

So Florence creates his own insurance in the form of product diversification.

"Due to our previous losses, we've diversified and gone into chickens and laying hens and we have a mushroom business ... You really have to spread yourself out and mitigate the risk because we just don't count on anything anymore," said Florence.

The Erskines also plant 180 crops so as not to put all their proverbial eggs in one basket. But the weather still keeps them up at night.

"We can wing it and hope, but truth is that Clay and I are figuring out how to get one of us off the farm to get a job because the weather patterns are erratic," said Josie. "For both of us to base our whole income off of this is pretty stupid at this point."

Florence also expressed concern about his future as a small farmer.

"It's really harder than ever to predict what the weather is going to do. If it really turns out to be some kind of a major climate change thing, we can have these strange anomalies where maybe it freezes in June, maybe it freezes in July. It really starts to make you question what business you're in."

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