This region's great orchards annually produce a third of all U.S. apples, and usually they are a promising green this time of year.

But today many are a sickly gray, coated with tons of volcanic ash spewed into the air Sunday when Mount St. Helens blew its top.

No one knows to what extent the crop has been damaged, but the growers are fearful. There were snowplows on the roads here this late spring day, clearing off the ash. In the same incongruous way, apple grower Lyle Sheldon was blowing ash off his apple trees with the spray applicator that he normally would use to apply pesticide.

"I never saw anything like it," he said, shaking his head in amazement. "And I hope I never see anything like it again. Before the volcano went off, everything was all green. But look at it now."

Sheldon's orchard lies in the center of the productive farming and livestock region of eastern Washington which was blanketed with up to three inches of volcanic ash.

The ash still hangs like smog over much of the area and some of it has settled on the ground like the first winter snowfall. Schools were closed, airports shut down and state troopers organized convoys to transport stranded motorists out of the town shrouded in an eerie twilight.

Meanwhile, farmers and cattle ranchers began to venture forth and try to figure out what to do with their ash-covered crops and animals.

"We don't know what the hell is happening to us, and we really won't know for several days," said Bob Mickelson, the state's director of agriculture. "We are advising farmers to play it cool."

State and federal agricultural officials have moved quickly to analyze the chemical content of the ash to determine what effect it may have on the bumper apple crop that had been expected this fall.

Initial analyses of the ash indicate that it contains about 10 times more acid and soluble salt that the average agricultural soil in the area. Scientists are hoping that the amount of ash that has fallen will not cause any major damage to apples and other fruit crops.

But that may depend on weather. Scientists say that light rain expected this week could transform the ash covering into an acidic paste that could burn tender fruit and leaves.

"If the burning is really severe, the acid will damage and kill the cells, causing a malformation of the fruit. The crops would be edible, but unmarketable," said Dr. Hal Moffit, research leader with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That dust may also create a haven for mites and other pests which plague the fruit grower.

The sheer mass of the ash fall may cause problems for spring row crops which have just poked their heads above ground in eastern Washington. Scientists have received reports that fields of alfalfa, wheat, peas and lentils had been smothered with up to several inches of ash. Strong winds could cause drifts of ash which could further bury young plants.

The ash may not be all bad news for farmers. "There may be some benefits," said Moffit. "Much of the ash is nutritious, fertilizing the soil with important micronutrients such as iron and sulfur."

Some fish also have not fared as well in the aftermath of the blast. The state salmon hatchery on the Green River was buried in a wave of water and mud, destroying more than 10 million Coho and Chinook salmon. Fishery officials also report that the hot ash has raised the temperature of the Toutle River above 80 degrees, wiping out some of the best steelhead runs in the state.

High temperatures, humidity and lack of oxygen may have severe impact on some salmon fishing, which is already severely depleted. The full impact probably will not be felt by fishermen for several years, when the migrating salmon would be expected to return to the streams and rivers.