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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cold temperatures worry some apple growers half finished with near-record crop

Antonio Ibarra holds an apple he picked in an orchard north of Manson, Wash., Oct. 20, 2017. Agriculture officials say they do not fear that food_processing operations pose a risk for spreading the coronavirus. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The surprise snowstorm that hit the region Wednesday may be just the beginning of a worrisome stretch for what was shaping up to be the second-largest apple harvest in Washington history. The cold weather could also cause issues for homeowners and gardeners.

With a cold front that is expected to last through the weekend, apple farmers are concerned about the damage the weather could cause, while homeowners could see sprinklers freeze.

The forecast calls for lows in the 20s in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene region through Sunday. The lowest temperatures, in the northern valleys, could drop into the teens, said Amanda Young, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

“We have a series of frontal systems pulling in very cold continental air into our area from the northwest,” Young said. “If you still have gardens, try to protect them the best you can. Homeowners should be winterizing homes, sprinklers and faucets.”

The lows on Thursday are expected to be in the low 20s in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, Young said. “For northern Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, the lows may be into the teens.”

The low on Thursday could challenge the previous record of 23 that was set in 2009, Young said.

Cold temperatures in October are a common threat to the Washington apple industry, but extreme cold could hurt the crop. Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington Tree Fruit Association, said the Washington apple harvest is about half complete. It starts in early August and typically runs into November.

“We were already expecting the second-largest Washington crop ever,” DeVaney said. “You can sustain a little loss from cold weather and still have a very large apple crop.”

The potential for damage depends on several variables, including the orchard’s location and elevation and the farmer’s ability to cope. Many use propane-powered fans that are designed to prevent cold air from settling on the orchards.

“There are always weather challenges in any year,” DeVaney said. “Growers will tell you that nature always throws you curveballs. The question is which ones. They are worried about cold temperatures, but this is something they are familiar with and prepared to deal with.”

Mark Powers, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, said apple growers are fine as long as the lows stay in the 30s.

“It takes a while for apples to freeze,” Powers said. “We have to kind to wait and see what transpires. But a lot of people will be spending sleepless nights. There is still a lot of fruit in the orchards that needs to be harvested.”

Todd Beck, owner of Beck’s Harvest House, at 9919 E. Greenbluff Rd. in Colbert, said the cold did not concern him. Beck predicts this will be the last weekend that visitors can handpick apples at his business. If anything, the cold enhances the fall feel of the region, he said.

“Apples are pretty hearty. I’m an optimist. I don’t think it will be anything noticeable to people who come out,” Beck said. “There is a chance we could get damage from the freeze. But the cold right now won’t hurt apples any more than cold in a week from now.”

Young, the meteorologist, said the cold temperatures will include a fair amount of north wind, as well.

“We have a series of cold fronts pulling in some very cold, dry continental air from Canada,” she said. “We are also going to get some brisk 10 to 15 mile per hour northeast winds. So it’s going to be chilly.”

The temperatures will moderate later in the week, she said.

“For our area, it’s still 5 to 7 degrees below normal,” she said.