- Associated Press - Sunday, April 26, 2015

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - In the wee hours of a cold morning in mid-March, residents in the Jerome Prairie and Wilderville areas west of Grants Pass got a rude awakening.

Whomp, whomp, whomp.

Thirty-foot tall orchard fans, seven of them, went to work protecting 135 acres of blueberries on Helms Road owned by Townsend Farms, a large fruit producer based in the northern Willamette Valley.

They weren’t there the first 14 years of the berry patch, which some passersby venturing just off the Redwood Highway near the Applegate River might mistake for a vineyard.

But last year Townsend invested over $200,000 in the wind machines to upgrade frost protection, after previously spraying irrigation water to protect the young fruit.

It’s another round of conflict between agriculture and neighbors, following a flap last summer three miles down the lower Applegate River, where Dinsdale Farms uses propane air cannons to keep birds away from wine grapes.

And while orchard fans have been around the Rogue Valley for more than 40 years, more have sprung up with the growth of vineyards, which need frost protection in the fall. On cold nights the coldest air often hovers near the ground, and the rotating fans mix the cold air with warmer air aloft to protect the fruit.

Suffice it to say neighbors are not fans of the new fans at Townsend’s blueberry plot, planted in 2000.

“To me it sounds like Huey helicopters. I didn’t come here to hear helicopters,” said Neal Sousa, who moved here from Southern California and lives near the blueberry farm. “Even inside with the double pane windows. Everybody is sick of them. I moved up here to get some peace and quiet. I should have stayed there.”

His neighbor Mike Mrkvicka could probably throw a rock at the nearest fan. He likened the sound to a bathroom fan with a bad bearing.

“They’re loud. I’m hoping we get used to those things,” said Mrkvicka, who is cautiously understanding. “Well, it’s only three or four weeks a year, and it’s not every night. But they need to fine-tune them.”

Joe Tankersley, manager for Townsend’s blueberry fields in both Grants Pass and the Willamette Valley, said the berries just entered the critical phase of petal drop, when the fruit is a small speck. Thus the fans are turned on at 35 degrees to get air moving well above the all-important 32-degree freeze. They were previously turned on at 33 degrees, Tankersley said.

Mrkvicka was concerned when, by his thermometer, he heard fans running at 38 degrees air temperature one morning.

He drove out into the field and talked to the on-site manager, and talked to Tankersley.

“I felt better about it after talking to Joe,” Mrkvicka said. “I just wanted to get some kind of parameters on their use.”

Frost protection for blueberries here generally starts about the third week of March and lasts about six weeks, Tankersley said. He estimated a total of 50 hours of frost protection will be needed when it’s done, probably any day now. Since they’re harvested in mid-July, they don’t need any fall protection.

“It’s about a six-week deal,” Tankersley said. “I hate being portrayed as the villain. We’re running these as little as possible. Our hands are tied when it comes to frost control. That’s some of the finest blueberries in the world being grown there. That farm has been there a lot longer than most of those neighbors. What needs to be decided is, do they want agriculture in the valley?”

Tankersley said the Orchard-Rite fans, manufactured by Cascade Wind Machines in Yakima, Wash., are the best on the market.

“They have catalytic converters and mufflers,” Tankersley said.

They’re also an upgrade over other frost protection methods.

Sprinkling water on plants to protect the fruit - a layer of ice does the job - has its drawbacks, Tankersley said.

“It causes root rot, washes nutrients and herbicides through the soil, and other issues,” he said.

Last year Townsend lost 500,000 pounds of blueberries from water damage, and harvested 1.3 million pounds, Tankersley said. In 2013 losses were minimal and the harvest was 1.8 million pounds.

“Now that the whole farm is coming into production, it needs to produce 2 million pounds,” he said.

Townsend operates 1,500 acres of blueberries in Oregon and Washington, and only the Applegate River farm has fans, as of now.

“Grants Pass has twice as many frost days as we get up here,” he said.

Phil Van Buskirk, former administrator for the OSU Extension in Central Point, said it takes 60 smudge pots, which burn kerosene, to warm an acre. One fan can handle 10 acres or more, so smudge pot use is dwindling.

The Rogue Valley’s pear orchards, which have seen a decline in acreage over the past 30 years, still cover 5,500 acres and most use a combination of wind machines and smudge pots, Van Buskirk said.

“It’s all about reducing costs for frost protection,” he said. “Fans are the cleanest, most economical way to protect crops.”

Van Buskirk moved to the Rogue Valley in 1984, close to an orchard.

“When we first moved here we hated it,” he said. “It does sound a lot like a helicopter. Over time, when we went somewhere else, I couldn’t sleep (without it).”

Neighbors of farms or orchards have little recourse. Oregon’s 1973 right-to-farm law includes specific protection for growers from legal actions over noise, vibration, odors, smoke, dust, mist from irrigation, use of pesticides and crop production substances. The law has been updated several times, most recently in 2001.

“The real problem here is urban encroachment on our rural community,” Van Buskirk said. “They need to be aware when they buy these homes. All of a sudden in the spring they hear things.”


Information from: Daily Courier, https://www.thedailycourier.com

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