iSeeChange: Frozen Fruit

May 2, 2015

A bright green new cherry, in front of blackened dead cherries.
Credit Jake Ryan / KVNF

A hard freeze in April damaged a wide range of fruit crops on the Western Slope of Colorado.

The warm spring caused many trees to blossom weeks early, making them vulnerable to the cold.

“It’s every fruit grower’s nightmare,” says Kropp, “to have a combination of an early bloom with potential cold fronts coming through later on in the season.”

But that’s exactly what happened this spring.  Mid-April, a cold front moved in.  The skies cleared, and the temperature dropped down to a devastating 23 degrees. 

“We were out here firing up wind machines,” he says,  “the heaters we started about 11 o’clock and ran those for ten hours.  We were surprised it was that cold that early, but once it was, we knew we were in trouble.”

The damage isn’t immediately apparent.  Row after row of the trees are covered in clusters of flowers that were starting to turn to cherries.

“These have been pollinated and were starting to grow, and now they’re black and if you look inside they’re really just turning to mush,” he says.

There are a few bright green bulbs hidden among the black and blotchy ones.  Kropp estimates that at most, he’ll see a 10 percent yield on his cherries.  He says he always hopes for a complete yield, but usually sees around 60 percent.

A green cherry survives around others that have not.
Credit Jake Ryan / KVNF

“It’s pretty tough,” says Kropp.  “I mean, you’ve invested your blood, sweat, tears, and money over the whole course of the season, and within two or three hours, with a cold front like we had, we could lose the entire crop.  The entire investment, all that money and time put into that, in just a few hours.”

Down the dirt road is another block of cherries.  These 2 acres were covered with a tent.  It’s an expensive and time consuming precaution, but almost all of those blossoms have turned to healthy green cherries. 

“When I get discouraged in other places I come in here under the cover and get a little boost in my enthusiasm again,” he says.

Underneath the big white tent, I tell him that I might talk to some scientists about the freeze and if he has a question for them.

“Well maybe just the trend that we’ve seen.  It seems to be that we’re having warming winters, earlier springs…it seems to be a trend we’ve seen over the past ten years.  What they attribute that to would be really interesting,” he says.

So I brought his question to Nolan Doesken. He’s works at Colorado State University and he’s Colorado’s State Climatologist.

“Well Kevin I’ve looked at data for Colorado as far back as we’ve had weather stations,” says Doesken, “and that brings us back into the 1880’s or so over on the Western Slope.  Throughout that time period we’ve had plenty of ups and downs: warmer winters, colder winters, and a warm spring here and there.  But what you’ve seen and are describing is consistent with what data are showing, especially for spring times.”

He says that variability is a trademark of Colorado weather, but spring time temperatures have seen a warming trend.    Pinning down the exact reason why is tricky.

“But it’s certainly consistent with what’s expected with the ever increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere,” he says, “and the pattern that’s been showing up in the United States, which has been favoring more warmth west of the Rockies in particular.”

In fact, the South West is seeing the strongest warming trend in the US, and this area is right on the edge of that.  NASA measures the CO2 in the atmosphere daily.  The week of the freeze, the amount of CO2 was about 40% higher than it was in the year 1800.  Doesken says we’ll probably continue to see this warming spring trend in years to come.

“Just cause the springs are warming up quicker,” he says, “it does not mean there won’t be catastrophic spring freezes.”

As for Kevin Kropp, he’s still optimistic.  The danger in growing cherries here has always been present.

“Cherries are on the edge of making it here, but we like cherries,” he says.  “We like to grow ‘em.  They’re a sexy fruit, I guess you could say.  It’s just fun to grow and when we can get a crop, it’s fun.”

If you’re curious about the climate, if you’ve noticed unusual things in the weather, tell us what you see, at iseechange.org.