In the already uncertain time of COVID-19, produce growers on Colorado's Western Slope are preparing to protect their orchards from another night of freezing temperatures.
“We’ll be out there lighting fires and making sure that we are using every tool that we’ve got to keep these buds alive,” said Harrison Topp, co-owner of Topp Fruits in Delta County.
Topp grows peaches mostly, but also grows cherries, apples and plums.
He said most of the trees aren’t in full bloom right now, which is a good thing. Fruit can’t be produced if the buds were to freeze. Instead, the buds are in a stage called pink. The flower is exposed but it hasn’t opened up yet, so the bud is still somewhat protected, Topp said.
Farmers will strategically place fire barrels around the perimeter of the orchard to help raise the ambient temperature. They'll use wind machines to then mix the hot and cold air around to protect the orchard.
“We’re all pretty nervous. The cold tonight is definitely really worrisome,” Topp said. “Best case scenario with the fire barrels and wind machines, we could raise our temperatures in the orchard tonight by four or five degrees.”
On top of preparing for the cold weather, many growers don’t know what kind of demand to expect this season because of COVID-19.
Direct-to-consumer meat producers have experienced increased demand and sales but cow and calf producers, who sell to the broader supply chain, are experiencing low prices, despite increased demand at grocery stores, Topp said. Growers who rely on restaurant and farmers’ market sales could really be hurt, too.
“When you get to the retail side of things it's a real question mark,” he said. “So far many of the retailers are telling our packers and the folks that go into grocery stores, ‘Business as usual, don’t plan differently the year.’ But we can’t help but wonder if we can trust that message.”
There is a chance that the pandemic may cause a renewed interest in local produce, which could help farmers, Topp said. But the other unknown is how migrant farm workers will pan out.
In March, the United States government suspended routine consulate services so workers couldn’t be interviewed for their H-2A visas. That delayed the arrival for some migrant workers, Topp said. It raises questions about whether or not migrant workers will be able to cross the border in the next few months when more farmers need them later in the season.
But with all the closures and layoffs in the United States, that caused a surge in domestic workers searching for employment, Topp said.
The other concern is how to keep workers healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. An outbreak at JBS, a meatpacking plant in Greeley, forced the facility to close.
Topp said after dealing with drought in some years, an oversupply of peaches in others, he was counting on some equilibrium to return this year.
“Every year we keep thinking we’re going to have a normal year and every year that does not happen,” he said.
CPR's Stina Sieg contributed to this reporting.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to characterize cattle ranchers more accurately.