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Frost Guard heater

Saratoga Apple owner Nate Darrow, right, and one of his employees fire up the orchard's new "Frost Guard" heaters as the temperature dropped toward freezing early Tuesday morning. Darrow, who lost nearly 70 percent of his crops to freezing temperatures last year, purchased the two Dutch-made machines, along with a mobile "Frost Dragon" and used them for the first time Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of David Roberts)

Nate Darrow was confident his apple crop would survive Tuesday morning’s predicted freeze, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

His Saratoga Apple orchard lost nearly 70 percent of its crop because of freezing temperatures last year.

Darrow, who may be the only orchard owner in America with a “Frost Dragon” and two other newly purchased Dutch orchard heating machines, fired them up.

“They’ve got an elaborate start-up protocol, and even though we had test-started them twice, we figured this was a chance to put them to work,” he said. “At 3 a.m., it seemed we would be all right, but we wanted to test the protocols.”

All three of the machines use a bank of 100-pound propane tanks, flame and large fans to heat the air around the trees. Two of the machines are stationary “Frost Guards,” and the “Frost Dragon” is towed through the orchard with a tractor.

“It almost sounds like a fool’s errand to try to heat the great outdoors, but you only need to do it for three hours, and you only need to heat it a few degrees, and you can save a crop,” he said.

Apple growers say the critical hours for a frost are between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., and Cornell University scientists have determined at 28 degrees, a tree can lose 10 percent of its apples, while at 25, it can lose 90 percent.

Darrow did not say how much he invested in the three machines, but said it was a tough decision “to spend money on something you’re only going to use for three hours.”

Darrow said that when he purchased the machines, the company told him it had sold to growers in Ontario , but did not have any other United States customers.

At Hicks Orchard in Granville, where Dan Wilson lost 60 percent of his crop last year, the only casualty was a good night’s sleep.

“It got down to 31 degrees at 3 a.m., and I finally figured that we would be OK, so I went to bed,” Wilson said. “When it’s warm in March and April, the trees start blooming early, and that sets them up for a number of possible freeze events.”

Near a record

Jeremy Davis of North Country Weather in Glens Falls said the low reading of 29 degrees at the Warren County airport was within a degree of the record of 28 degrees reported there in 1967.

“Every day the rest of the month has a low temperature below freezing,” Davis said. “But while I am not going to come out and say we will not have another freeze, things look good for the next 10 days.”

Davis said the average date of the last frost in the Glens Falls area is May 7, but noted it would usually be much later in the Adirondacks . He said that North Creek reported a low of 27 Tuesday and 29 was reported in North Hebron.

Davis, who covered his tomatoes and other vegetables Monday night, said he didn’t have any losses in his garden.

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature was expected to get close to freezing early Wednesday morning, but no frost warning had been issued by Tuesday afternoon.

From Wednesday on, more normal temperatures are expected with showers and a high around 65 and a low of 47 overnight.

Thursday will be another day of severe swings, with a sunny forecast and a high of 71, followed by a low of 39 overnight into Friday.

Warmer temperatures are expected through the weekend with highs near 70 and lows between 45 and 50.

Good advice

Last year, during a stretch of days in April when the sunny weather hit the high 80s, the customers at Frank Spoelstra’s Garden Time Nursery and Garden Center in Queensbury were pushing him to start putting tomato plants out for sale.

“I told them it was too early,” said Spoelstra, who noted that freezes later that month badly damaged plants that were in the ground.

Since it’s mid-May, Spoelstra has been selling tomato plants but has been telling customers not to plant yet.

“They keep telling me they will put them in their garage or keep them warm,” he said, noting he had at least one customer who lost plants Monday night.

“We survived (Monday) night. We only had a few casualties, and we’ll cover again tonight,” Spoelstra said. “Mother Nature teases us.”

When it comes to overnight freezes, Spoelstra said a couple of degrees can tip the scales.

“Being in this business for 40 years, all you need is a swing of two degrees, and you’re in trouble,” he said. “You can lose $10,000 in four hours.

Around the region

Paul Arnold of Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle, said geography is his best protection.

“We are on a little bit of a hill, and 35 was as cold as it got here,” he said. “We didn’t have any problems.”

In Granville, Michael Kilpatrick of Kilpatrick Family Farm said that while the frost warning resulted in a little extra work, he did not have any problems, either.

“We had to cover a lot of things, but that was it,” he said. “In fact, we left some things uncovered, so the cold could kill the frost-sensitive weeds.”

The same was true at Fiddlehead Creek Farm in Hartford , where Chris DeBolt has both New York-native plants and an expanded field of hops.

“It was perfect,” he said. “I was out in the hop field, and everything looked fine, and all the nursery stock was fine, too,” he said. “The New York plants are pretty hardy. We didn’t have to cover anything.”

Wilson , at Hicks Orchard, said he is happy with the long-range forecast, but has one additional hope.

“We could really use some rain,” he said.

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