Hovering helicopter helps save blueberry, peach crop

A helicopter from Chorman Aviation hovers over peach trees at Bennett Orchards in Frankford early Friday morning, helping to prevent temperature drop iand potential crop loss from frost. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

FRANKFORD – Mother Nature’s cloudy blessing of warmth and man-made intervention from above teamed to save a longtime Delaware orchard’s peach and blueberry crop from a potential frosty, fatal fate.

A helicopter piloted by Jeff Chorman of Greenwood-based Chorman Aviation hovered over upward 60 acres of peaches and blueberries around the break of dawn Friday morning, providing an additional blanket of warmth that helped to save Bennett Orchard’s entire crop from predicted frost with temperatures forecast in the upper 20s.

“We had pretty much the best-case scenario we could have hope for last night,” said Henry Bennett, co-owner and operator of the multi-generation Bennett Orchards.

With a freeze warning in place Thursday night into Friday morning, the fear was Bennett Orchards might possibly lose upward of 90 percent of this year’s peach and blueberry crop.

The chopper flew in early evening Thursday, landed and was grounded until lifting off around the break of dawn.

Around midnight, the temperature started dropping rapidly, approaching the critical temperature — 28 degree Fahrenheit.

“At 12 o’clock it got down to 30 and we were bracing ourselves for a long night of flying and fighting the tide,” said Mr. Bennett.

Then, welcome cloud cover moved in, helping to prevent earth’s heat from escaping into space.

“It maintained at 30 degrees from 12 midnight until 5:30 a.m. At 5:30 temperatures started to plummet pretty rapidly. It moved more in 15 minutes from 5:15 to 5:30 than it did from midnight to 5:15,” said Mr. Bennett. “So, we got up in the air and started flying and he kept it above 29 degrees in the whole orchard, and that pretty much spared the crop. We are expecting a full yield this year of peaches and blueberries.”

With a frosty forecast, Mr. Bennett contacted Mr. Chorman Thursday morning.

“He came down and took a look. He realized … everything was on the line. We were trying to save our whole year’s income and he said he’d do it,” Mr. Bennett said. “He came down yesterday before dark and parked the chopper. We were saying, ‘Man, do we even need the chopper?’ We sat on the ground until 5:30. Then things started to plummet. We’re glad we had it.”

“People don’t realize, the coldest part of the day is around 5:30, before sun comes up,” said Mr. Bennett, who operates the business with brother Hail and family. “We witnessed that as clouds receded; it was very conducive to frost.”

Mr. Bennett said their dilemma was magnified because of the current stage of the bulk of their crop.

“Twenty-eight degrees is the critical temperature,” said Mr. Bennett. “It all depends on your stage. We were actually post-blossom where they lose a little bit of heartiness. When they are in a blossom that blossom, it’s like an insulated blanket around that little peach bud on the inside. That will give you four degrees. But we’re now in what is they call petal fall/shuck split where they are starting to shed that and you’re having little green fruit. So, it’s even a little more susceptible to frost at this point than it would be at the blossom stage.”

This dates to February and March, during extended spells of unseasonably warm winter weather.

“It brought everything out early and we were at a stage earlier than we would usually be at this time of year.” Mr. Bennett said. “And a late cold snap like this makes it really vulnerable.”

A sixth-generation family owned and operated business, Bennett Orchards, located on Peachtree Lane in Frankford off Del. 20 (Armory Road) near Omar, offers 18 varieties of peaches and six varieties of blueberries.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, blueberries should be ready for harvest and picking from early/mid-June into mid-July.

Peaches, which Mr. Bennett calls the “quintessential summer crop” should follow from about July 4 to Labor Day.

The last time Bennett Orchards utilized a helicopter was in 2009.

“And we had a crop loss in 2016. A helicopter isn’t going to bring 22 to 29. But it’s going to bring 26 to 29 or 30. In 2016, had 40 (percent) crop loss because it got down to 22. Having a helicopter at that point would have been just throwing good money after bad,” said Mr. Bennett. “Last night was a situation where it really warrants that. It was like the ideal situation for a helicopter.”