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Apple trees might be pretty to look at right now because of last week's unseasonable weather, but the beauty belies the danger to growers if the recent frigid climate suddenly decides to stay awhile.

An early and extended spring would be windfall for area growers, but that's if the warmth holds. If it turns cold, the fragile buds will be exposed and extremely vulnerable.A hard frost wiped out entire crops May 8, 1989, while the average temperatures for March in this area hover between the mid-30s and the mid- to upper-50s. Henderson County Extension Agent Marvin Owings said a temperature in the teens to low 20s - for as short as 30 minutes - would cause damage to around 10 percent of the green-tip buds.

Early budding ``extends the period of jeopardy where you can lose a crop,' said Steve West, an extension agent in Haywood County, where trees are two to three weeks ahead of schedule.

Many orchards have trees between the half green-tip stage, in which the green buds are stretching farther outward in odd shapes, and the tight cluster (early blooming) stage, West told The Asheville Citizen.

David Butler, owner of Sky Top Orchards in Flat Rock, says his crab apple tree is beginning to bloom, which traditionally means his apple trees are about five days from blooming, too. They would be about two or three weeks ahead of schedule, Butler said.

Owings said most trees in the county are in the green-tip stage, when the first buds are starting to show.

``With the track record that the apple growers have had the last couple of years, we don't expect anything until harvest time,' said Benny Arrington, a Haywood County orchard owner. ``My usual response is call me again in September.

``We've lost so many (crops), we expect a disaster. I only give (this year's crop) a 50-50 chance at best.'

There's another consequence of warm weather - aphids, rats and a few mosquitoes. Butler said he has already seen mosquitoes around his orchard, which sits a mile up the side of a mountain.

To balance their worries, many growers are putting the best face on the situation and trying not to let the worries overwhelm them.

``From what we can tell, we have a nice crop started, so we're optimistic,' Butler said. ``You can't control the weather, so we try to be optimistic. Very seldom do I talk about a complete loss because the trees are fairly resilient, and they produce a crop even if the weather is against us.'

``If this is indeed an early spring, we stand to have as good a crop this year as any we've ever had,' West said.

The verdict could be in by as early as the next two weeks, West said. By then the crop will be committed.

``It's like the turtle in his shell. Once you're out there, there's no going back for fruit trees,' he said.

``The worst part of this is you sit here and work hard for a whole year, and then you have no control over the outcome.

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