As cracks and snow-leadened thuds scared home and car owners through the nights on Sunday and Monday of this past week, orchard owners worried about the damage to the trees themselves.
Glen Lehne made frequent checks on the trees and structures at Norm Lehne Garden and Orchard northwest of Roseburg on Sunday night, losing a hoop house greenhouse and watching the snow topple hazelnut trees. The branches slumped over like old flowers and were covered in snow from the center to the farthest branches.
“The oldest block (of trees) sustained the worst damage,” Lehne said. “These older trees just had so much canopy and surface area to accumulate the snow load that they just bent to the ground. There will be several that once the snow melts off will recover; they just bent to the ground and were flexible enough not to break. But certainly, it’s widespread devastation.”
Norme Lehne has 32 acres of hazelnut trees that produced over 75,000 pounds last year, the bulk of which came from the more heavily damaged portion of the orchard. Most of the hazelnuts go to a producer and create a consistent revenue stream for the farm.
“The good thing is, the trees are not dead,” Lehne said. “They are just severely damaged. Obviously, we’re going to have to go in with our pruning saws and get in and clear the damage. The most opportune time is to do that before the trees come out of dormancy this month. It will be a different mentality of pruning while these trees recover, and they will recover.”
He spent most of Sunday evening trying to protect different parts of the farm, from the poll shed and the tractors below it to using a broom to knock snow off the hoop house where he heard a tree branches cracking every couple of minutes. Shortly before midnight, he and his brother-in-law attempted to shake the snow from the trees for about 30 minutes.
“There was nothing really we could do,” Lehne said. “About midnight, I quickly realized the limbs that were going to break had already broken and the others had already bowed over and weren’t going to go anywhere. The damage had been done. God went pruning on Sunday night.”
Just a few minutes away, Bill and Elin Miller at Umpqua Nut Farm have only trees 16 years and younger. The first trees were planted in the winter of 2002 and a few have been planted since. The Millers were out of town when the storm hit and came back to find about 25 percent of the branches on the older trees had broken.
“There’s not much you can do,” Elin Miller said. “When you prune hazelnut trees you try to keep them disease-free so you prune the centers out so you have branches that go up and to the outside. There are some new plantings that have come up, but they are little tiny trees, so they don’t have big thick branches, so they didn’t hold more snow.”
Miller said they will have a better idea of the impact in May, but they really won’t know the full impact until harvest in September.
“We’re really waiting for the snow to melt out there to do a more thorough assessment ... it’s really hard to tell at this stage,” Miller said. “Hazelnuts are difficult to really predict. We’re assuming it’s going to be at least 25 percent (loss). It was actually a shock. We did not expect it to be that bad.”
Miller and Lehne said so much damage was caused because it was wet snow, not dry, light and fluffy.
“The amount of moisture we got in our 16 inches would equate to feet of powdery dry snow,” Lehne said. “It’s not so much the inches, it’s the weight.”
He said he’s never seen a snow like the one that started Sunday night but his dad, Norman Lehne and some other older friends of his talk about a similar storm from 1969.
“We’ve had disasters befall the orchard before,” Lehne said. “The ones that really hurt are freezes that come in before the trees become dormant and killed the trees.”
He’s hoping if they get the pruning done before the trees come out of dormancy in March, the energy stored in the roots will boost the growth and, maybe, he’ll have a few years of crops with higher-priced ‘jumbo’ hazelnuts until the harvest is back to what it was this past year.
“My gut tells me it will be in the five or six year range,” Lehne said. “All the trees are going to have brand new growth and a large root base.”
Oregon produces about 3 to 5 percent of the world hazelnut crop, with most of that coming from the Willamette Valley, according to the Arbor Day Foundation. Lehne said the Umpqua Valley is planting more because Oregon is a prime area for hazelnuts due to the mostly dry summers, but his 20- and 30- year-old trees are the ones producing the bulk of the crop.
“Because we’re also dirt farmers, a farmer’s life is always busy with the next crisis,” Lehne said. “We’ve got to get these limbs of the tree because here toward the ends of April we’re going to be busy breaking ground in our garden plots.”