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Smoke in the Orchards

Around 5am on the morning of February 22nd, I woke to the smell of smoke throughout my house. I sat up in a panic wondering what was on fire in or around our home. I first remembered that the home we now live in was built of solid concrete by my great-grandparents, Cary & Annie McLeod. Their first home was consumed by a house fire in the late-twenties, and they barely escaped. To prevent that from happening again, Cary built this house of concrete with exterior doors in almost every room. I breathed a small sigh of relief, realizing it wasn’t the house burning down. Then I remembered the boys had burned throughout the night to protect our peach trees, and the smoke I smelled was coming from the orchards. I immediately grabbed my phone to check the temperature, and to text my brother to see how low the temperature dipped.

It’s my first spring in McBee, SC since 2010. I’d forgotten how crucial the spring can be for our peach crop. It’s every photographer’s favorite season, “Spring portraits on the peach farm!” It’s true. The pink blossoms are beautiful this time of year and are the first indication of life after a “cold” South Carolina winter. Still, when we see the blooms coming, it is also a very critical time on the farm. To protect the blooms, we must ensure that the temperature does not fall below a certain degree. Now, don’t get me wrong, peach trees love the cold hours in the winter. However, after the trees start to bloom, we must make sure each blossom is protected from cold damage.

My brother and dad check the weather constantly this time of year. You could go as far to say that they probably do a better job predicting the weather than your local TV station. I’ve even heard the National Weather Service employees talk about my dad frequently and place bets on when he will call to get the latest weather information.

A few days before we know we will have to stay up with the trees, we confirm the wind machines are functioning properly. Wind machines work with nature to pull the warmer air down into the orchard to raise temperatures around the tree. Next, we place hay bales every 100 feet around all the orchards. This is where the smoke comes from. We light every other hay bale on fire to create warmth in the orchard. After those burn down, we go back around and light all the remaining ones. The fires and wind machines work together to create a blanket of heat around the orchards.

The day of the threatening temperatures, the boys go home around 5pm for an evening nap. While they sleep, we stock the main office with Little Debbie cakes and coffee. When their alarms go off at midnight, they start up the wind machines and begin lighting all the fires. Throughout the night they monitor the temperatures and fires. They are covered in smoke as they ride down the fiery rows of trees. They carry shovels and truck tanks full of water to keep the flames from getting out of control. It is truly a sight to see. From a distance it seems like the whole orchard has gone up in smoke. However, it is necessary to protect our crop.

After texting my brother on February 22nd, he assured me that everything had gone well. Everyone was safe (eating homemade ham biscuits from our aunt) and the crop didn’t seem to have much damage. So, I guess I am glad I woke to the smell of smoke that morning. It is the sign that our trees survived another spring cold snap and gives hope to a bountiful peach season.

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