Hazelnut orchards suffer greatly from ice storm
When Ken and June Melcher first visited the Willamette Valley from Norfolk, Nebraska, they were immediately captivated by its temperate climate.
"They had some discouraging years in Nebraska. They came out here to visit my mom's parents. They came in September and everything was nice and green and pretty," recalled Dennis Melcher, the couple's son and now the patriarch of Melcher Family Farm in St. Paul. "They found a place and dad plunked down some money on the property and went back to Nebraska to sell the farm."
The Melchers moved to Oregon in 1957. Over the years their experiences coincided with those early expectations, save for a few difficult years, and 2021 may be counted among those.
"We've been pretty fortunate over the years," Dennis Melcher said, while referencing damage wrought on hazelnut orchards by ice storms.
He recalled one icy year in the early 1980s that wiped out much of the crop. Probably the only other truly rough year was in 1962, when the Columbus Day storm hit the area and caused widespread damage to flora in general.
Just like then, the February storms knocked out power throughout the region; the Melcher family was out for 10 days. With things returning more or less to normal, there is a lot of work to be done, essentially doubling the load.
"Before this hit, everyone pretty much had their pruning done," Melcher said. "Then the ice storm came and now we have to start all over with it."
Brenda Frketich, also of St. Paul, echoed the stories Melcher and many of his orchard-tending neighbors recounted.
In her agriculture blog, Nuttygrass.com, Frketich shares insights into some of tasks ahead on her family's farm.
"Last time I checked in we were in the middle of probably one of the worst storms Oregon has seen since the Columbus Day Storm in 1962," Fryketich said. "I wasn't around to experience that one, but after chatting with some folks who were, the thoughts are similar: 2021 has been worse. And when talking to lineman storm crews, they say the same, 'This has been some of the worst damage we have ever seen.'"
Melcher described a scene on a nearby country road where entire rows of power poles looked like they had been plucked out of the ground and strewn about. He learned that so many were down, it far exceeded the power companies' inventory to replace them, so more poles had to be shipped in.
"That being said, we are all grateful to so many who turned on our power, who offered to help when we needed it and (we're) also grateful to see the storm become a part of the past to talk about," Fryketich said. "But now the real work begins; time to clean up."
Both Melcher and Frketich said they were luckier than many of their neighbors.
"Our damage was middle of the road; there were some growers hit harder than us and others not as hard," Melcher said. "We didn't get hit as hard as other farmers. Some have talked about tree losses upwards of 20%, even as high as 50%. This is devastating to hear. We are not that bad in our orchards, thank goodness."
By March 9, Melcher said he had about half of his farm's 120 acres of hazelnut ground cleaned up. Most around the family farm's home and store are cleared, but they had yet to tackle an orchard outside Hubbard.
Melcher has several workers tasked with the job. Clearing the obstacles posed by downed branches and full trunks is vital, because it's closing in on time to spray for blight and to fertilize.
A short walk into one of the orchards reveals the types of damage Melcher described in advance: heavy limbs cracked off trees; younger, shallower-rooted trees bent down to the ground as if the storm had tackled them; full grown trees split down the middle.
He described a variety known as Jefferson trees, which tended to wind up in the latter group.
"Must be something in the composition of the tree that causes that," Melcher said, adding that a neighbor in the Broadacres area had a variety of Lewis hazelnut trees that sustained the odd damage. "Mainly, older orchards took the heaviest hits; the older the orchard, the more damage done."
Frketich illustrated similar experiences: "In assessing the damage we have found that just about each tree has to be treated differently. Some we have cut down to the trunk and will lose some years of production, but we'll keep the tree in the ground. Others we just had to trim up some branches.
"A few we cut the branch that split the tree and if it didn't cut into the main trunk too badly; we kept (it) for a year's worth of production before we decide if we are going to take it out later. And some just didn't make it and got cut right then and there. Many of those we will replant this spring to get them up and going."
Fortuitously, the Melchers' peach orchard weathered the storm virtually unscathed; only two trees that had not been pruned lost a few branches.
Melcher said he believes growers will likely have to pull many of the split trees out and replace them with nursery stock anywhere from one to three years old. It will be another four to five years before they produce, so the earliest the new trees could contribute to the crop yield would be 2025.
Trees that are still healthy but lost branches could see smaller than normal yields.
"The crop will be down because of the ice storm, but it's hard to tell how much," he said. "When you lose those big branches, they are branches that hold a lot of (hazelnuts)."
Melcher Family Farm has its own product brand, "Ken & June Hazelnuts," named after its founders; Dennis and Silvia Melcher's daughters — Jenny, Julie and Jamie — attend to that portion of the business. The 2020 pandemic shutdowns provided some challenges in sales when retail outlets like Made in Oregon suffered cutbacks and closures.
Compounding the situation is the reality that 2021 labor costs to process hazelnuts will be higher as more labor is needed due to the storm.
"Many of these orchards (had already) been pruned, so doubling the amount of work to go back in prune, stack and push brush for the second time will take a lot of time and money," Frketich said. "We try to be very efficient on our farm and Mother Nature basically made sure that this year would not look like that on our orchard budgets."
But there is always a silver lining and a time to count blessings.
"Right now I'm just happy that we have power, the sun has been out for a few days and we are moving along with clean-up," she said. "The orchards are looking less tattered by the day and it will be a good day when the 'Ice Storm of 2021' is in our hindsight completely."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.