NEWFANE, NY - Agriculture remains New York State's largest industry. In the Great Lakes shoreline areas of Western New York, the fruit crop in particular is a major part of the local economy.
However, all can be lost this time of year, with a fickle turn of the temperature.
This was demonstrated in 2012, when an early warm spell in March sent temperatures soaring, and fruit trees budding and beginning to blossom, before a hard frost set in.
The result was a devastating crop loss, with apple production alone down 40%.
Now there is a relatively new method being used in these parts to attempt to tame Mother Nature, if only for a night.
A casual observer passing along Swigert Road in Niagara County might surmise that what appear to be windmills rising above the Russell Orchards are being used to generate power.
However, that is not the case at all.
"We need to grow apples to stay in business, and those help us keep doing that," explained Dave Russell, who operates the cold storage units for his family's fruit farming operation.
Two wind machines, powered by the same Ford Titan V-10 you might find under the hood of a super duty pickup truck, were installed last year,.... just before a late frost wiped out many of the crops of their neighbors, and ended up sparing the Russell Orchards from experiencing a similar fate.
"At our other two farms we had significant crop losses, pushing 90%," said Russell. "But at this orchard the machines saved us."
Farmers have long known that on a still, and frosty night, there is often pocket of warmer air, about 40 feet up.
"That's called an inversion layer," explained Russell, noting the difference of a degree or two in air temperature could spell the difference between a bumper crop and a disaster.
However, harvesting that warm air is not as easy as plucking an apple from a tree.
"Some people will try and have helicopters hover over their orchards....but that can get pricey," said Russell.
And there are only so many helicopters available to cover the tens of thousands of acres of orchards owned by the fruit growers who might seek to utilize one.
"That (wind) machine will pull the warmer air from up above, and blow it down to the ground. We can get close to a five degree temperature change from running that machine," he said.
Not coincidentally, the blades of the wind machine are installed approximately forty feet in the air-the approximate height of a typical inversion layer.
Standing beneath one operating at full speed, is not unlike standing near a helicopter and experiencing the sound and feel of a rotor wash.
Wind machines like those in the Russell orchards range in the neighborhood of $30,000 to $40,000 to purchase and install.
But the Russell's believe it is money well spent, considering even a single year of crop loss can be crippling to a fruit grower, and when one takes into account that they are protecting the much larger investments they've made in their land, their trees, the labor to maintain them, and the fruit they count on them to produce.
"Having them in last year, with the frost we had, they paid for themselves," said Russell.
As far as the Russell's know, they're the first apple growers in Niagara County to install the wind machines.
It is thought that others will soon follow.
"It's like having a safety net, that insurance if you will, that we can get through a frost even like we had last year," Russell said.
It has been said you can't fool mother nature.
It has not stopped people from trying.
Now, in the mechanically created wind, there blows a solution to potentially save fruit crops, and the livelihood of those tied to them.
Click on the video player to watch ours story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Bob Mancuso.
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