Business Community Family Police Weather

Orchard’s Plum Crop Near Total Loss After Police-Ordered Burn Ban, Owner Says

The Lower Saucon Township Police Department plans to adopt a kinder, gentler approach toward a local farm’s use of fire to help prevent the buds on its stone fruit trees from freezing–but it’s already too late to save the orchard’s plum blossoms, which were severely damaged by frost Tuesday night after an officer responding to a call about a fire reportedly told the orchard’s owner he could not keep his fires lit.

Est. Read Time: 5 mins
A fruit tree blossom at Bechdolt's Orchard in Lower Saucon Township shows signs of damage from a recent frost.

A fruit tree blossom at Bechdolt’s Orchard in Lower Saucon Township shows signs of damage from a recent frost.

Note: This story has been updated with additional information provided by Lower Saucon Township Police Chief Guy Lesser.

The Lower Saucon Township Police Department plans to adopt a kinder, gentler approach toward a local farm’s use of fire to help prevent the buds on its stone fruit trees from freezing–but it’s already too late to save the orchard’s plum blossoms, which were severely damaged by frost Tuesday night after an officer responding to a call about a fire allegedly told the orchard’s owner he could not keep his fires lit.

Bechdolt’s Orchard owner Richie Rowe said Thursday that Lower Saucon Township Police Chief Guy Lesser had called him and apologized for the loss of nearly his entire plum crop, which he estimated had a value of about $5,000. He did not have crop insurance for it, he said, because it’s not available for plums in Northampton County.

Lesser also wanted to know more about what happened Tuesday night, Rowe said.

In a phone message to Saucon Source, Lesser said that after speaking to Rowe and investigating the incident, he concluded that there was a misunderstanding between the officer and Rowe.

He said the responding officer “mentioned the heavy smoke to them, and they had said they had thrown some straw on that was wet, and the officer had commented that they should let that burn out.”

The officer told Lesser he only meant they should let the straw burn out, Lesser said.

“It’s unfortunate that they thought that the officer meant they should let the fires burn out, which they did,” he said.

Rowe, however, disputes that accounting of events, and stated in a Facebook post Thursday night that “there was no misunderstanding! I was told NOT to add anymore wood to fire and let them burn down.”

Bechdolt's Orchard is located at 2209 Leithsville Road, Hellertown.

Bechdolt’s Orchard is located at 2209 Leithsville Road, Hellertown.

Rowe said the officer who responded to Orchards Road–after an unidentified neighbor reported a possible dwelling fire–asked him, “What are you doing here?” when he saw the fires burning in between the rows of fruit trees.

“I’m trying to save our fruit crop,” Rowe said he told the officer, who drove away briefly and then returned to tell him smoke from the fire was drifting onto nearby Moyer Road.

Rowe said the officer then told him he had to stop tending the fires–which he had been stoking for hours–and let them burn down.

Doing that, and watching his investment go down the drain, was painful, he said.

“I think I’m gonna take a total hit on this,” Rowe said, adding that he may have also lost half his peach crop as well as some apples and pears to the unusual cold snap.

This was not the first time he has used fires to help keep his trees from freezing, he explained.

In 2012, Rowe said he successfully saved his fruit tree blossoms without incident.

He’s now hoping his plan to again use fires Saturday night–when the mercury is forecast to drop to 23–will go off without a hitch, after Lesser promised to alert his two dozen officers to the planned burning at Bechdolt’s via a bulletin.

Rowe said that if an officer does respond, Lesser instructed him to tell the officer he has permission from the chief to burn.

Lesser said he also told Rowe to alert his neighbors to the fact that he will be burning in his orchard, to let the Northampton County 911 Center know in advance, “and of course burn responsibly.”

While the Lower Saucon Township Code makes no provisions for agricultural burning,¬†under Pennsylvania’s legal code, 129.14 Open Burning Operations lists “a fire set in conjunction with the production of agricultural commodities in their unmanufactured state on the premises of the farm operation” among a list of exceptions.

Rowe told the Morning Call he was unaware of the state provision when police responded Wednesday, but even if he had been, how the PA Code intersects with Lower Saucon’s nuisance ordinance–which enumerates as a nuisance the drifting of smoke or odor from open burning across property lines–remains unclear.

Some clarity could be achieved, Lesser said, if the township’s ordinance were amended.

“That’s just a topic for discussion…should we amend that,” he said.

Regardless, he added, “we’ll probably all remember this next year and in the immediate future.”

In the meantime, what is clear to many is that Bechdolt’s needs the support of the Saucon Valley community.

Rowe said 2016 began on a bad note for the orchard, when one of its tunnel greenhouses collapsed under the weight of heavy snow in January.

Since news about what happened with the fires broke on Facebook, there has been an outpouring of sympathy from local residents on social media, and Rowe said many neighbors have been stopping by the farmstand to offer their support.

“I’ve just got to keep chugging along,” he said, adding that the start of the farmers market season is just a few weeks away.

This year, in addition to the Bethehem and Saucon Valley farmers markets, Bechdolt’s will have a stand at a new Saturday farmers market in West Bethlehem’s Rose Garden, he said.

Rowe said he wasn’t sure if he’ll need help from volunteers to man the fires he is planning to light Saturday night, but he knows the offer of help is there, and he appreciates it.

“I’m going to try and do what I can myself,” he said.

Saucon Source will do its part, too, by reminding area residents via social media Saturday that the nighttime fires at the orchard are permitted agricultural burning.

Looking down Orchards Road at Bechdolt's Orchard in Lower Saucon Township.

Looking down Orchards Road at Bechdolt’s Orchard in Lower Saucon Township.

Newsletter

Subscribe to receive our newsletter in your inbox every Monday, Wednesday & Friday.

Please wait...

Thank you for subscribing!

About the author

Josh Popichak

Josh Popichak is the owner, publisher and editor of Saucon Source. A Lehigh Valley native, he's covered local news since 2005 and previously worked for Berks-Mont News and AOL/Patch. Contact him at josh@sauconsource.com.

Leave a Comment