Wet weather splits cherry crops

Area farmers assessing damage, counting losses

For many local cherry farmers, the weather the Hood River Valley has seen this past week couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

Orchard owners in the Hood River Valley and The Dalles — as well as other farmers around the Pacific Northwest — are reeling as three or four days of intermittent rain followed by sunny, hot weather have devastated the area’s Bing cherry crop right as it was coming into season.

Jeff Heater, chair of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers and a field man for Underwood Fruit, said Thursday afternoon that initial estimates show about 30-50 percent of local Bing cherries have split, which are the most widely grown variety in the region. Heater said he has seen damage in some orchards as high as 70 percent and expected the scorching hot temperatures in the forecast for the next several days to only make things worse.

“We’re concerned about the heat wave,” he said. “This is probably going to be one of the most difficult harvests we’ve had in quite a while.”

As a cherry ripens, the skin of the fruit becomes more soft and permeable, which increases its ability to absorb water. If the cherry gets hit with too much water, it can swell and to the point of bursting its skin, which makes the fruit unmarketable to grocery stores or fruit stands.

Many orchard owners and employees made frantic attempts earlier this week to save their cherries by drying them out. Dwight Moe, who owns Glacier Ranch Inc., located off the Odell Highway, initially used everything at his disposal to try and save his 13 acres of cherries.

“We’ve used frost fans, air blasts and helicopters,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “Today, we stopped that process.”

Moe called the damage to his crop “pretty great” and estimated that 50 percent of his Bing cherries were now culls. While split cherries can still be sold for juicing or drying, they don’t fetch as high a price as intact cherries going to market do and Moe speculated it would likely cost him more money to have them picked than it would to do nothing at all.

“Personally, I’ll pretty much leave them on the tree and take the loss,” he said.

Moe said that for the 25 years he’s been working in the cherry business, this is one of the worst harvests he’s ever seen. Luckily, he also grows pears, apples and other varieties of cherries that ripen later and weren’t harmed as much by the weather as the Bings.

Still, Moe worries about how much of a financial hit he’s taken by the Bing losses — some unpleasant math that he’s putting off for now.

“I haven’t done that calculation yet,” he said. “I’m trying to keep my spirits up.”

Pat McAllister, owner of Hood River Supply, a business that sells home, garden and farm supplies, said he was concerned that the bust Bing cherry harvest would be bad for his business, as well.

“It’s going to affect the amount of disposable income in the valley,” he noted.

On top of that, McAllister also owns a small, 5-acre Bing cherry orchard off Tucker Road. He estimated 60 percent of his cherries had split thanks to the weather, which made harvesting the fruit pointless.

“I was supposed to start fresh Bings this Saturday,” he said. “I was this close.

“It’s just part of being a cherry grower,” he added.

To help offset the losses, Jean Godfrey, executive director for Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers, said the nonprofit may ask the county to declare a disaster in the hopes of helping farmers recoup some of their losses via emergency funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She said loss statistics are still being gathered and the full extent of the damage wouldn’t likely be known until early next week.

The one bit of good news received about the cherry harvest was that varieties which ripen later, such as Lapins and Sweethearts, were mostly unharmed by the weather, with damage percentages estimated in the single digits. Those varieties will be picked over the next few weeks and hopefully, the weather will hold.

“They’re actually some nice-looking cherries,” Heater said. “We’re still in the cherry business here.”

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