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Environmental disease threatens Bedford County orchard

Published On: Jun 20 2013 06:32:50 PM EDT   Updated On: Jun 20 2013 06:33:53 PM EDT

In the growing business, Danny Johnson says you have to be prepared for everything.

"One of the things we deal with constantly is the weather," said Johnson.

Mother nature has thrown him a lot of curves over the years. Ice nearly wiped out his orchard 30 years ago. Just this month his apples were damaged by hail.

Right now that's the least of his problems.

"The whole thing is just eaten up," said Johnson, pointing to a branch on one of his fruit trees.

Leaves throughout his orchard are brown and wilting away. They're suffering from what's known as "Fire Blight."

"Fire blight is a bacterial disease that effects apples, pears, and other things in the rose family," said Scott Baker, an agricultural extension agent for Bedford County.

It isn't just a threat to commercial growers. Ornamental trees in your yard can also get the disease.

The condition is not new. Johnson said he deals with it on some level every year. The extra rainfall that fell this spring made the problem a lot worse.

"When you have those kinds of conditions, the trees grow quite rapidly and the new growth is highly susceptible to infection," said Baker.

Johnson grows new trees and grafts into existing ones all the time, making his orchard highly vulnerable to the invasive disease.

"It's been probably the worst year for fire blight I've seen since the 1950's," said Johnson.

His staff is attacking the problem.

"Only thing we can do right now is come in and cut it," Johnson said.

The damage is already done.

40 percent of his orchard is infected. That will hurt fruit production, not just this year, but for several years while the trees grow back.

"Financially, it's a big hit," said Johnson. "It's going to hurt."

His only option is to keep growing and hope for kinder weather in seasons to come.