Spring snow is good and bad for Utah fruit growers, ranchers and tulips

Snow is delaying spring schedules, but the snowpack is a blessing after years of drought.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Machine shakes pie cherries from trees onto a collector apron at McMullin Orchards in Payson Thursday July 28, 2016.

Robert McMullin, one of the four siblings who runs Payson’s McMullin Orchards, said he could recall only one or two Utah winters that have generated as much snow as this one.

“The only thing that comes to mind is ‘83-’84,” he said. “Back in the 1950s, my mother took pictures of my grandfather and I in the snow, and it was piled awfully high that year, too. From my memory, this is the most snow we’ve seen in a long time.”

The northern Utah snowstorm that stretched from Monday into Tuesday may not stop until Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. On Monday, Salt Lake City saw 5.5 inches of new snow, with more landing Tuesday. On average, the Salt Lake City area gets only 2.9 inches of snow for the entire month of April.

Around Utah, cities saw record-breaking snowfall from the storm, after a 40-year-old record for snowpack was broken last week.

For farmers like McMullin, the snowfall is a double-edged sword.

“On our farm, it’s certainly helped us with our reservoir levels,” McMullin said. “I’m afraid if we hadn’t had this snowpack that we’ve had this year, the drought would’ve continued and we would’ve been restricted on how much water we can use.”

McMullin said the drought is particularly rough on orchards, because trees have to be maintained no matter what, and growers don’t have other annual crops. They grow a variety of fruits at McMullin’s — including sweet and tart cherries, apricots, peaches, apples and pears.

However, the snowfall, while needed, also sets farmers back in their spring schedules.

“The main effect is we just can’t get in the field to get our spring work done,” McMullin said, “We’re trying to prune now — that’s our big job now until the buds, blossoms and leaves come. We have to have our pruning done by then.”

Normally, by this time of the year, McMullin said, the apricots have bloomed and his crews are moving onto the early peaches and cherries. “We’re at least two weeks behind schedule right now,” he said.

One bit of good news, McMullin added: They haven’t seen any temperature damage on any buds.

“Just like everybody else, [we’re] anxiously awaiting for spring to happen,” McMullin said.

Over at Rileys’ Orchard in Genola, Chris Riley is facing similar issues. The orchard grows varieties of cherries, as well as raspberries, peaches, apples, watermelon and cantaloupe — and a selection of vegetables, including tomatoes, pumpkin, cucumbers, zucchini and squash, and 12 kinds of peppers.

The fruit harvest, Riley said, will come later than they expected. “With the vegetables, it could get a little trickier on working the ground and getting the crops planted,” he said, adding that they don’t plant them right away because of fear of potential frost.

On their harvest calendar, the greenhouse flowers and vegetable planting seasons are set to start in April.

Rileys’ delivers crops across the state. One problem Rileys’ and other growers face because of the extended snowfall, Riley said, is bumping up against grocery stores’ marketing and selling seasons.

“The larger retailers, for whatever reason, have in their mind a certain day [where] they say the season’s over and we’re not going to sell peaches anymore, because now we’re moving into pumpkins and apples,” Riley said. “The market is the hardest thing to deal with. You put all that money and time into it all year long, and for whatever reason, there’s not a sell for it.”

Those kind of hiccups take a toll on farmers, Riley said, particularly for fresh products like peaches. He asks Utahns to be patient with farmers this year as they try to catch up on their schedules.

Still, Riley said, he is happy to deal with a winter like this one — because as farmers, ranchers and a state, he said we “desperately needed this.”

Justen Smith, director of extension agriculture and natural resources department at Utah State University, said late snow is also an issue for ranchers, because it is calving and lambing season.

“All this snow is causing increased death loss in our calves and our lambs, especially those that are out on the range,” Smith said.

Usually, at this time of year, grass would start to green up, just in time for grazing. But with the snow covering grazing areas, ranchers have to feed hay to animals longer, which is more expensive.

“These ranchers are devastated that they’re losing more calves, in some cases, three times more than they normally would,” Smith said. “But they’re still like ‘this is what we’ve needed to get out of the drought.’”

At Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, crews are preparing for the venue’s annual upcoming Tulip Festival, which starts Friday and runs through May 13.

Erica Brown, the chief marketing officer, said the festival schedule was set long before the weather forecast — and though they anticipated the chance of cold weather, the tulips’ blooming has been delayed.

Brown isn’t too concerned, though. “The tulip is made for this type of thing,” she said. “It is the most resilient flower known to man, and is very happily sleeping dormant under the snow.”

The crocuses and other spring plants are blooming, Brown said. The daffodils, however, also are delayed — but Brown said the festival organizers are optimistic because the weekend forecast is expected to be warmer.

“Every tulip festival ticket includes a bounce back automatically,” Brown said, “so if you come early, you can come back and see the tulips when they’re a little further along.”