The Great Smudging of 2019

Written by Mark Wieser

Dietz Fischer and I were returning from Somerville, Texas, where we had finished attending the spring Peach Growers Conference. News of the ten-day forecast was already out, and everyone was talking about it

I had largely dismissed it, believing with much confidence that no weather forecast could possibly be that accurate so far out. How on earth could they predict that temperatures would be in the low twenties more than a week before? Amazingly, those three days and nights of temperatures did not change as the days came closer. By Sunday it was apparent that the weather forecasters were quite confident that those temperatures would hold and arrive at Fredericksburg as schedule, beginning the early morning hours following Sunday night.

Case took the threat seriously and ordered that the pruning normally piled at the southeastern portion of the orchard be moved to the northern end. Fortunately, I had already been plowing and prepping an area there for the new orchard to be planted in 2020. Joby Wieser brought in four bales and was assured us that setting them afire they would smolder for hours. He was right. Now using the ten-day forecast of temps and winds we set the time when to light them. That was at 2 a.m. on Sunday evening. Lows are always the lowest right at dawn and we figured that if we could keep the orchard from falling below 26º there might be a chance to save at least some parts of the orchard.

The winds also arrived as scheduled and unfortunately at too high of a velocity to permit our wind turbine to activate. Consequently, it stood silent all night long as only the burning bales along the northern side did their work.

It proved to be a long night—and a bitterly cold one! The winds reminded me of the days when northers used to blow in shaking our house and howling, even whistling, as they raced around its corners. It was the kind of cold that went right to the bone—and hurt.

Remarkably, watching the smoke being driven throughout the entire length of the orchard raised our hopes. We also had cloud cover which is vital to helping keep smoke and any heat that it might have from dissipating skyward. By Monday morning it was felt that perhaps if we could do this for another night that there might be a chance to save the crop. Temperatures, however, were predicted to be even more severe. It would be an even greater challenge.

All that day we rounded up more hay bales. The brush had burned. Hays was all that we had. We thought perhaps 16 bales would be enough. Then we had a change to get another 16. Conor promised us more. Before the night was over we would consume 50!

We braced for the first falling temperatures. We would begin at 11:00 p.m. Case had thought that we should place some within the orchard and I had cut two stings of drip hose and rolled them up, so we had room to place several bales along the eastern edge of the orchard about half way down. At the appointed hour we began. Johnny and his men lit the bales all along the northern edge. Dietz manned the three that had been placed along the eastern edge. Each required stoking at times.

Joby had earlier suggested we use his infrared temperature sensing gun. I used it to test temperatures first along the northern rows next to where we had the most bales of hay. Remarkably, I was getting a reading of 34º. As I went down more rows, the temperature fell only slightly, and I gained more encouragement as I proceeded down the orchard rows. At the south end the centers of blossoms I checked had reached only 29.1º—stunning.

And so, it went all night long. The winds decreased rapidly after sunset. The wind turbine kicked in. What would be its effect? We didn’t know. It could destroy any warmth generated by the burning hay and send it in all directions. To our astonishment, it didn’t. 

The mix that night was astounding. The cloud cover was holding, and smoke, aided by much gentler northern winds continued to drift throughout the orchards although not in as orderly a path as the night before. It was cold—bitterly cold, and temperature readings were continuing to fall. Remarkably, none reached the critical stage of 26º.

It proved to be a remarkable and long night. We had started at 11:00 p.m. and by dawn the last of the hay was set ablaze. We had used 50! By 8:00 a.m. temperatures were finally rising a bit, but above freezing. Everyone was exhausted and was sent home to rest. We had one more night as predicted by the weathermen.

We began frantic search for more bales of hay. All that we could assemble was 16 and by 6 p.m. we had them in place. Simon was summoned from Austin to replace Dietz, who was “bushed.” We had time. Studying the expected forecast, which had been astonishing accurate, we decided not to begin burning until 11:00 p.m., an earlier start than on the first night, but one that we felt necessary according to the predicted temperature drops.

At the appointed hour Johnny and his crew were in place. The wind turbine had already activated hours before. It is programmed to begin when temperatures reach 35º. We had clearer skies and winds were now, at times, blowing northerly. A new problem had been encountered.

Johnny moved several bales and set the fire along the western edges and later into other rows. Those where Dietz had tended the previous night were also set afire. This could have been a difficult night, but remarkably the temperature readings remained remarkably consistent. None had yet been noted as falling below 26º, in fact, few were even noted falling below 30º!

By 8 a.m., it was over. Temperatures were rapidly rising—as predicted. The weathermen’s forecast had been remarkably accurate. I just could not believe that such a forecast ten days out could unfold as it had. They had been right on the money, but then we do have an old saying in Texas, that if you don’t like the weather—wait a minute.

Our efforts had remarkably been a last-minute response. Had Case not had the forethought to at least attempt this, this effort simply would not have come to fruition. Whether we were successful in all this remains to be seen. The odds, I believe, are still against us. 

Were the readings I and Dietz took all night accurate? The winds and smoke caused some damage too. Many petals were simply blown away—particularly those in rows along the northern edges of the orchard. Most of the trees were in various stages of blooming. Many were in bud stage—a stage when they had not yet opened. 

The young, actively growing tissues will be damaged or killed by a variety of temperatures. Swollen fruit buds can often withstand temperatures in the teens without any damage. As the buds open, temperatures in the low 20s can cause harm but leave other buds undamaged. Early in development there is often a wide range between the temperatures that cause little damage and those that cause severe damage. 

As bloom nears, temperatures in the upper 20s can cause considerable harm to an early blooming species or variety and leave other fruit crops unaffected or with only slight damage. Near bloom, the range between slight and severe damage is very small. The stage of bud development determines how susceptible any given fruit crop is when freezes occur. 

Only time will now tell. I am so proud of Case for taking the initiative. We had never done this before. Dietz gave it his all. Johnny and his crew were fantastic. Should we make a crop, we owe it all to them.

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