Challenges chase cherry farmers to finish line

July 27, 2011

"I've been up all night and so has my crew," said cherry farmer Brad Fowler, owner of Hood River Cherries, following the fast-moving summer storm of July 25.

While Fowler and other farmers clasped hands in prayer and crossed fingers, and helicopters, fans and salt sprays tried to work a bit of scientific magic to save the early season cherry crop, the rain gods of 2011 apparently turned a bit of a deaf ear.

The flashy and loud tempest, which hit in the early morning hours, brought heavy rain, thunder, lightning strikes and a fresh wave of challenges to local and regional cherry farmers.

"This feels a bit like the movie 'Groundhog Day,'" said Fowler. "We've had to endure one bad event after another. This year had the November freeze, the cold spring and now rains in the summer."

Local cherry farmers' initial damage estimates from this most recent rainfall appear to be minimal, according to Chad Wimmers, Diamond Fruit field service manager.

"The bigger event occurred with last Tuesday's rain. This one was surprisingly limited," said Wimmers.

"Through the efforts of local growers, I believe we can still bring a good crop to market," he predicted.

For this early crop, which represents about 20 to 25 percent of the Valley's total cherries according to Wimmers, it's all about fruit maturity and weather factors.

Water on mature cherry skins can lead to "soft cherries" or splits. Splits spell disaster. Soft cherries create challenges for packing and shelf life.

"I sure hope we can get this crop in - it would be so disheartening to be thrown out at home plate," said Fowler. "We are so close and have been spending so much effort."

According to Fowler, his pickers are reporting that many of them had already been pulled from orchards in The Dalles as a result of last week's weather events that affected much of the fruit ready to be picked.

"Tragically, there was what seemed like a railroad track of storms going into The Dalles this summer," noted Fowler.

Hood River, whose cherry crop tends to mature later than The Dalles, continues to be at the mercy of these unseasonable bouts of rain, necessitating costly interventions for farmers hustling to remove water from the fruit.

"The valley's cherry industry is working together to finish the season strong. They just don't pick anything that would compromise the product," said Wimmers.

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