Cherry growers ask governor for disaster status

August 20, 2005

Hood River Valley cherry orchardists were hit with a “double whammy” this season when cold weather limited the number of blooms and then rain damaged the fruit.

“Some growers didn’t even harvest this year, they felt it would be putting good money after bad,” said Dana Branson, administrator of the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission.

On Monday the Hood River County Commission stepped forward to help farmers. The board is asking Gov. Ted Kulongoski to declare the county a cherry disaster area. If Oregon’s lead official complies with that request, orchardists may be eligible for low-income emergency loans to offset next year’s operating costs.

“We’re very hopeful the governor will heed our request and we can bring relief to some of the folks devastated by their losses this year,” said Dave Meriwether, county administrator.

The Hood River Grower-Shipper Association asked the county board to take that action after surveying local packing houses. The agency discovered that heavy rains in July had left only an estimated 1,650 tons of cherries in comparison to the five-year average of 5,500 tons. That number was even lower than the 3,300 tons expected after cold weather in May and June.

“Many growers will be leaving the cherries on their trees because it is not profitable to pack when the cull rate exceeds 30 percent. We would like to see these growers have access to financial resources to aid them through this difficult time,” wrote Jean Godfrey, association director, in a June 29 update letter to the county.

Branson said about 120 cherry growers in the valley were caught by surprise with a turnaround in the weather this season. When the climate turned unusually warm in February and March, Branson said everyone was worried that blooms would arrive too early. Then the sun turned to showers for the remainder of the spring and kept bees from pollinating blossoms that managed to cling to trees.

According to Branson, the heavy rains of July arrived just as most cherries were mature and ready for harvest. Several downpours quickly turned the year into a financial loss for many lower and mid-valley farmers. Because Parkdale is at a higher elevation with a later ripening cycle, Branson said most cherry crops in that sector of the county did not sustain the same level of damage.

Although Hood River cherry growers, as a whole, are now providing sharply less fruit to the market, Branson said shoppers will have no dearth of fruit. She said Eastern Oregon and Washington State cherry farmers did not get hit by the same storms and are able to meet consumer demand.

Branson said, even with a disaster declaration, not all Hood River County farmers will automatically qualify for government aid. According to Branson, public money will not be available unless the orchardist has sustained at least a 30 percent loss and first tried to obtain a loan from a private lender. If the growing operation is already heavily in debt, state officials could also decide not to risk taxpayer dollars on the enterprise.

Branson said it is unfortunate that anyone taking out the loan has to go into the next growing season with a debt load. That could become a real problem, she said, if next year crops is also ruined by bad weather.

“It (money) can save your bacon or it can fry your bacon, she said.

About 10 years ago, Branson and her husband, Leroy Nickerson, put 15 acres of their land into cherry production after being laid off from their jobs at Sprint. Branson acknowledges that the greatest uncertainty of farming, to date, has been weather patterns that are outside of human control.

“It’s a good life and I enjoy the work, but I didn’t really realize at first how risky it is,” she said.

Branson said 2002 was the last bad year for cherries — again due to heavy rains — but 2003 and 2004 were “okay” for production. She is hopeful that 2006 will be bountiful for growers — a gift from nature that will be greatly celebrated.

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