Upside down weather has county fruit farmer keeping his fingers crossed

After last year’s spring freeze, erratic temperatures are cause for concern


Roy Alther of Roy’s Orchard & Fruit Market in Sperryville examines an early blossoming pear tree. By John McCaslin

One week it’s summer, with temperatures hovering around 80 degrees. The next week it’s winter, like it’s supposed to be.

For most of us the weather extremes thus far in 2017 are conversational. For Roy and Janet Alther, of Roy’s Orchard & Fruit Market in Sperryville, it’s far more serious.

“We had no plums last year,” Roy recalled this past Saturday while examining the premature buds and blossoms on a variety of fruit trees he and his wife first began planting in 1975.

“No cherries. No apricots,” he continued of the 2016 harvest. “Pears were hit hard. It hit some of our peaches, too.”

It being a very hard freeze, blowing through Thornton Gap and into Rappahannock County the weekend of April 9 and 10, when temperatures dropped 20 degrees below average. For fruit farmers across much of the state the impact was catastrophic.

Now the calendar page had barely turned to March 2017 and Roy was once again walking the couple’s orchard concerned about potential crop damage. This time though it wasn’t because temperatures were abnormally low, it was because they’d been so abnormally high — record setting high — during the month of February.

“We are budding,” Roy pointed out. “Some trees are in bloom now. But last night, even though it was below freezing, we had a breeze. Most of the time when you have a slight wind you’re going to be OK. As long as there’s no moisture.”

Fortunately, while both Saturday and Sunday low temperatures in Sperryville dipped to an identical 21 degrees (high teens in other parts of Rappahannock County), there was no precipitation to speak of. Sunday night’s low was 27 degrees.

Roy stepped up to an early pear tree and with his weathered fingers snapped off a blossom, already past peak and brown in color. With his fingernails he brushed back the wilted sepals, until reaching a protective layer of healthy red petals. It was a good sign. He carefully peeled the petals away until uncovering the beginnings of a tiny yellowish fruit no larger in size than a BB.

“That there is your pear,” Roy said. “And it’s alive.”

As of this past weekend at least this tiny pear had so far survived the freezing temperatures of late. By John McCaslin

Not that the Althers — or the county’s other fruit farmers — are out of the woods quite yet. “It’s still too early to tell,” Roy answered when asked about potential damage to the fruit from this past weekend’s freeze.

And bear in mind that last year’s devastating hard freeze didn’t arrive until exactly one month from today.

In the meantime, not surprisingly, high temperatures in Rappahannock have rebounded this week to the upper 60s, yet will drop again this weekend into the teens.

We can be certain of one thing: spring officially arrives on March 20. But what the weather will be like that day, or in the days and weeks that follow, is anybody’s guess.


About John McCaslin 448 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at