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The fruits of labor have changed in Hood River

By BOB WOOD

News staff writer

August 26, 2006

In 1876, Ezra Smith planted Hood River’s first commercial orchard, with 30 acres of apples. Within four decades, Hood River Valley apples were coveted coast to coast. Some fruit vendors across the country would even mislabel fruit — saying that it was grown in Hood River when, in fact, it wasn’t — simply to charge a premium price.

The winter of 1919, however, changed the flavor of Hood River’s orchards forever.

That December, when temperatures in the valley plummeted to 27 degrees below zero, many apple trees had to be removed because of irreversible damage caused by the cold.

A local agricultural extension agent from Oregon State University advised orchardists to replace their apple tree with more resilient pear trees, and by the 1940s pears had overtaken apples as Hood River’s primary crop.

Ever since, Hood River apples — although still as reputable as before — have taken a back seat to pears.

And now apples have taken a back seat to sweet cherries, too.

A study published earlier this year by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service found that, over the past 20 years, the total acreage of apple trees in the Hood River area has dropped nearly 70 percent, whereas cherries have grown more than 275 percent. Cherries now constitute 1,900 of Hood River’s 13,800 orcharding acres, while apples only cover 1,200.

“Apples and pears aren’t as profitable, and cherries started making money,” said Dana Branson, administrator of the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission. “Growers saw an opportunity to improve income.”

“In a good year, cherries can be four or five times more profitable than apples or pears,” said Leonard Aubert, who harvests cherries on 40 of his 100 acres in the upper valley. “But the problem is that they’re only profitable about once every five years.”

Aubert said that in his 13 years of having cherries, he’s only had a handful of good crops.

“It’s very risky to put all your land and assets in just cherries,” said Branson. “Cherries aren’t that easy to grow.”

Aubert echoed that statement, saying that it was particularly true of the upper valley.

“Because of the rainfall, we have a high instance of bacterial canker,” he said, “and we end up losing parts of trees.”

Bacterial canker is a tree disease that produces a powerful plant toxin that destroys plant tissue. Although most fruits and vegetables can get the disease, sweet cherries are most at risk.

There are, however, upsides to growing cherries so far up the valley.

“The market indicated that if we prolonged the growing season, we’d extend profits,” Branson said. “That’s why there are a lot of cherries planted in the upper valley.”

“We have an advantage in the upper valley because we’re in the late market,” Aubert said.

While most cherries are harvested earlier in the summer, many cherries in the upper valley are harvested in mid- to late August — and this can be both a gift and a curse to the grower.

“If the early cherries are good, people will keep buying them,” Branson said, adding that the trend was “unfortunate, because if they’re not so good at the beginning, that doesn’t mean they’re all going to be like that.”

Aubert was able to testify to that statement with his crop this year.

“We had a good crop with high quality fruit,” he said. “But because of the heat earlier in the season, the market was really filled up with small, soft fruit.”

Even though Hood River’s apples don’t dominate the market as they used to, growers in the valley can still take pride in the fruit they produce.

“The growing conditions in the Northwest are some of the best anywhere,” Branson said, “and we believe we produce some of the best cherries in the world.”

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