Oregon Trails: Orchard Smudging

By Ron Brown

TALENT, Ore. — For more than a hundred years now, the fruit industry has been a mainstay in the economy of Southern Oregon, but cold spring nights, just as fruit trees are budding and blooming, has challenged orchardists to keep trees and fruit from freezing.

Former Jackson County Circuit Judge Ray White grew up on a pear orchard north of Central Point, where he learned first hand the challenges of keeping budding trees and baby pears from freezing. It required large crews of “smudgers”, as they were called, to light oil heaters scattered throughout the orchards all over the Rogue Valley. Most were high school students, except Ray, who started when he was about 11-years-old, working for his family.

“It was exciting,” says Ray, “I was with the big guys, but every year it got less exciting, and by the time I was through college, I just hated it! But when I first started it was just…finally you felt like you were a man, you know, doing a man’s job!”

It was hard work. Long, cold nights in the smoke and damp, trying to keep temperatures above a critical point determined by the fruit tree’s development. One particularly cold season, they had to heat for almost two weeks in a row.

“I think we had 13 nights in a row that we lit. And we were exhausted, by the time that was over with!” Ray remembers.

Trying to get to school, you could always tell who had been smudging because of oil smoke still around their eyes, nostrils and ears.

“It was a little bit of a badge of honor,” Ray recalls, “especially when I was a sixth grader or so, to go work a little dirty. But the fun of that faded quickly.”

Heating orchards in the early 1900’s, up until the 1950’s, was not very scientific. In fact, it was long thought that the more smoke, the better. So growers burned everything from straw, and lumber and wood, to tires and oil. Smudge pots were little more than five-gallon square metal buckets with a sliding top as a damper.

Then came the lazy flame – similar, but with a tall tin chimney that could more easily be controlled. Then the return stack heaters; they’re now lighted with a simple air-powered “flame thrower”, which eliminates the need for an army of guys lighting each heater by hand.

”The crew still needs to go ahead of the flamethrower, open the pot and open that to two holes. 2 to start and then once we’re going, we’ll go down a hole. And sometimes if the temperatures holding, we got a nail that we put in there and go down to a half hole. So it burns even less, saves even more fuel,” says Orchardist Kirt Meyer

And at today’s prices for fuel oil, growers have turned to wind machines, sprinklers, gas and a combination to save costs.

“In the early 60’s when we started heating on this orchard,” Orchardist Ron Meyer, “We could buy a load of diesel fuel, 10,000 gallons, for $1100. Now that same load of fuel costs 35,000! So to heat an orchard with these heaters exclusively is history! Because of the expense. But with the wind machines and the heaters together, we have cut our oil consumption by 80%. And typically, we only light these heaters about twice a year now, with the fans, because most night the fans alone will protect.”
But about this time 40 years, the valley saw a cold snap that is still vivid in Ron Meyers’ and ray white’s memories.

“That was the benchmark for freezes. And the 18th of April it got down to 18 degrees. Uh some people started lighting at 7 o’clock in the evening. And they of course– they were afraid of burning all their fuel before sunrise, and in our case we started refueling while the pots were going,” says Meyer, “But 75% of the pear crop was lost that year due to the frost. Everything that would go was burning, and and in those days we were using all the orchard heaters.”

“I was running the crew there and we were supposed to keep the temperature at 31, and I had every pot burning as much as it could go and it was 23 degrees,” says Ray, “And the only pears we got off that orchard that year was where we had our camp. That was such a helpless feeling, to just–there’s nothing you could do. You had all the pots going as much as you could and couldn’t keep it warm enough.”

Ron Meyer says that where there’s enough water, wind and water may be the future of fruit frost protection: “We had a severe frost that year, in 2010, and we got a 22 degree temperature and wanted to hold 29. Well, with the heaters and fan together we could only hold 27. And so there was minor damage. Where we had the water and the fan, we held 29. It was two degrees better than the heaters.”

And some orchards, like The Bear Creek Orchard off Foothill Road, use propane gas. That simplifies a lot of things, but has its hazards, like when a gas line broke and caused a fire in this orchard a few years ago.

Orchard heating has changed a lot over the last hundred years in Southern Oregon. From burning straw and tires and wood and just about anything else to make a lot of smoke, to using fans and sprinklers. Regardless, cold weather in the spring still requires keeping the trees warm. Be sure to stay tuned to NewsWatch12 as the season develops for fruit frost warnings and advisories as they become necessary.