Science

Catastrophic frost night for arborists in the Rhône valley

“It’s a disaster!”: The arborists of the Rhône valley were unable to fight against the severe frosts which affected their orchards during the night from Wednesday to Thursday, with considerable losses as a result.

The damage is still difficult to quantify, but the first upsurges lead to fear the worst. Even more for arborists, whose productions were more advanced, than for winegrowers.

“All sectors are affected”, notes the prefecture of Drôme with a frost ranging from “-3 ° to -9 ° in places”.

“At least 80% of our production is affected”, explains Daniel Betton, who operates 55 hectares of apricot trees in Mercurol-Veaunes (Drôme). “The fruits that had already come out changed color. Inside, the almond went from white to brownish.”

He and his son unsuccessfully used heating candles in an attempt to combat the predicted cold.

“The temperature became negative from midnight and at the stroke of 7 am, we went down to -4 °. A small wind prevented the heat from diffusing properly,” laments Mr. Betton.

“We have advances in vegetation of at least 15 days compared to other years, which means that the consequences look formidable since the apricots were already at the stage of small fruits”, indicates Bruno Darnaud, secretary of the chamber. of agriculture of Drôme, in charge of arboriculture.

Arborist Daniel Betton shows his apricot trees damaged by the frost the day before in Veaunes, near Valence, April 8, 2021 (AFP – PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

“The arborists fought all night. Those who irrigated to protect had the opposite effect, as the cold was dry, they found themselves with up to 4 centimeters of frost on some trees”, further describes Mr. Darnaud . “.

In neighboring Ardèche, “we have gone down to -7 ° in some orchards and even areas that are normally non-freezing are concerned,” announces Bernard Habauzit, responsible for the management of agricultural disasters at the chamber of agriculture.

– “Nothing has worked” –

The significant resources deployed by farmers – up to a helicopter in Haute-Savoie – were not enough to protect the crops.

“We watered, we heated and nothing worked,” says Stéphane Leyronas, whose kiwi shoots from the Aubenas basin broke under the weight of the ice accumulated after he had recourse to sprinkling.

“I also used a gas cannon and lit more than 700 heaters which did not even last through the night”, the cold episode lasted so long.

The winemaker Rémy Nodin shows his vine buds damaged by the frost the day before in Saint-Peray, near Valence, on April 8, 2021 (AFP - PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

The winemaker Rémy Nodin shows his vine buds damaged by the frost the day before in Saint-Peray, near Valence, on April 8, 2021 (AFP – PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

“We selected the main slope and we burned bales of straw and piles of wood to try to save what could be saved,” says Rémy Nodin, winemaker in Saint-Péray (Ardèche), that adrenaline keeps up after a sleepless night.

“The objective was to have a smokescreen so that by the time the sun comes, it does not burn the vine because of the humidity.” The mission was partly successful for the young 34-year-old professional who had taken advice from more accustomed Alsatian colleagues.

“The buds of the vine have withered, some vines that were well advanced 2-3 centimeters high have blackened,” he notes, however.

In the Hautes-Alpes, Eric Allard, an apple producer operating eight hectares of orchards in Théus, recalls “a night of madness” which will remain “anchored in his memory”, with a harvest potentially cut in half.

He describes a “rare icy wind” and a “black frost from the Arctic” similar to that which had damaged many crops in 1991 and 2017, the last major disasters to date for arborists.

An apricot orchard after a freezing night in Veaunes, near Valence, April 8, 2021 (AFP - PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

An apricot orchard after a freezing night in Veaunes, near Valence, April 8, 2021 (AFP – PHILIPPE DESMAZES)

In the Rhône and the Loire, “all sectors are affected but it is still too early to measure the damage”, comments Christophe Gratadour, arboriculture advisor to the chamber of agriculture. “We are particularly concerned about the risk of sap stoppage on trees which have undergone significant temperature variations in a few days”.

At the end of March, the thermometer had exceeded 25 degrees in several sectors of these two departments.

Thursday morning, the fires lit by the farmers generated a veil of pollution over the Rhône valley, leading the air quality monitoring body Atmo Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes to trigger a “yellow vigilance” to the gaze ” significant particle levels “.

Its director Marie-Blanche Personnaz underlined that the farmers were “completely in their right” by lighting these fires, often blocks of paraffin, but also of other combustible materials.

“But we should perhaps work on the problem and find other solutions when the phenomenon (of freezing) is massive,” she noted.

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