The Gleaner

Local vineyards use fires, fans, and helicopters to fight frost

Over the nights of May 17 and 18, temperatures in the Valley dropped to a level that became dangerous for many plants’ spring buds and blossoms. Across the area, vineyards were employing different tactics in order to protect their buds and the grapes to come later this year, to ensure they didn’t lose a significant amount of their product.

Vignobles Les Gémeaux in Hinchinbrooke employed a unique protection technique involving a helicopter. Co-owner Johanne Lamarche explains: “We made fires from 2 to 4:45 a.m. strategically because of the wind. At 4:45 am a helicopter flew over the vineyard at low altitude to take the warm air and bring it down to the ground.” This brought the temperature up two degrees and more to be above the freezing point, which resulted in the plants being safe from damage. Moving into the summer, Lamarche explains that they’ve got to be extra aware of diseases in their fields; “The vines are looking great, but during the summer it’s the fungal diseases that can affect the yields, so I am treating them with organic products. A nice production is in sight.”

Normand Guénette of Le Chat Botté in Hemmingford explains that they usually rely on fans to keep the vineyard warm on cold nights. However, they needed to take extra steps this time. “With this frost, we also had to light some fires in the lower parts of the vineyard. After a night of feeding the fires and stressing, it seems we managed to save most of our crop. We estimate the damages to be less than five per cent.” A few nights later, the fans were once again running as temperatures dipped dangerously low again overnight on May 22 and 24. In a Facebook update, the winery confirmed most of the tender shoots on their vines survived, and flower buds are starting to form.

“We are hoping to have drier weather than last year which was horrible because of the rain,” says Guénette of the coming summer. “If we do, it will be a very nice crop!” he exclaims, saying he expects the arrival of warmer weather will lead to bloom in mid-June as usual.

Unfortunately, the Aux Volets Noirs winery in Très-Saint-Sacrement was more adversely impacted. Ian Lefebvre explains that even with their Chinook wind machine (which they installed in 2021 after losing 100 per cent of their crops due to frost), they still lost about 20 per cent of their buds. “The machine pulls the warm air at about 40 feet and mixes it with cold air at ground level. But the problem we had on the night of May 18th was that there was no sun and warm temperatures during the day… so there was no warm air to mix,” he explains. They ended up lighting 48 bonfires on top of using the wind machines “We burned a total of 1 1/2 cords of hardwood, 450 ecological logs, and around 10 wood pallets! The Chinook machine ran from 9:20 p.m. to 7 a.m.” Lefebvre adds that it was a full family effort to protect the vineyard; his children Alexandrine and Benjamin (aged 17 and 14) helped out until 11 p.m. “They realized that our season was at risk, and we had to force them to go to bed because they wanted to stay and help us. It made us realize that this is really a family business.”


The owners of the Vignobles Les Gémeaux in Hinchinbrooke set fires and employed a helicopter to circle the vineyard to keep ground temperatures and their precious vines from freezing on May 18 PHOTO Facebook Vignobles Les Gémeaux


With the heat coming in the next few weeks, Lamarche says that “The upcoming heat will accelerate the budding of the vines. After this stage they will be even more sensitive to the cold. But the vines like heat.” Though the beginning of the season has been exceptionally stressful, Lefebvre adds, “We know we’re going to end up in September with a nice harvest party with family and friends, just like we do every year!”

Orchards and berry farms

The owners of vineyards weren’t the only ones cautiously watching thermometers over the last two weeks. Temperatures dropped to as low as -5 degrees in parts of Hinchinbrooke on May 18. Laurie Ann Prevost of Rockburn Orchards estimates she has lost over 50 per cent of her crop, with some areas having been completely wiped out by frost. She says even if some of the flowers held, the resulting apples will “most likely have some physical damage.” In Franklin, Jeff Blair of Blair Orchards is more optimistic, saying the orchards were not that badly impacted, though he admits some of the lower lying areas got cold. “It is pretty much a wait and see,” he says.

Several other Valley-based producers experienced losses. Strawberry patches were especially hard hit, and those growing asparagus lost a few days’ worth of harvests. Some blueberry farmers located further up on Covey Hill are optimistic the frost did not damage their plants, while others, such as the Bleuetière La Grande Ourse in Saint-Chrysostome, spoke about the need to adapt crops and diversify their offer to help cope with unforeseeable events such as heavy frost in late May. 

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