With cherries arriving late, valley farmers hope for rain relief

July 20, 2011

Early July usually heralds the arrival of sweet, succulent cherries to the Hood River Valley. Now that we are into the third week of the month, folks are beginning to feel a sharp craving for the late-arriving fruit.

According to Larry Lembeck, warehouse manager at Stadelman's Fruit Company, this year's sweet cherry crop is a week to 10 days behind.

"We are just beginning the harvest season in Hood River," Lembeck said. "It will pick up in earnest over the next two weeks."

This delay-trend is consistent across Oregon and Washington, and with the cool, damp spring, is ensuring that demand is outpacing supply. That brings some good news for the farmers, who are able to receive stronger wholesale prices as a result.

According to OSU Extension Horticulturist Steve Castagnoli, the light rain over the weekend "proved to be more of a nuisance than a serious threat" to the generally not-yet-mature fruit.

Cooler temperatures also spared the cherries from "split," which can occur in warm weather following a moderate rain - particularly when the cherries are close to harvest. The danger comes when permeable fruit skins take in water and swell, causing cracks to form, damaging the final product. Warm weather speeds up that process.

"There weren't any disasters or catastrophes out there," Castagnoli said.

"But, we need to keep the rain to a minimum from here on out," said Lembeck.

Hood River Cherries business owner Brad Fowler reported on his Riordan Hill orchard at the 1,350-foot elevation, which, like other farms, did require some rain intervention.

"We sprayed calcium chloride (salt) during the rainfall and used a helicopter at daybreak," said Fowler. "So far, so good."

The salt spray changes the surface tension of the rainwater, slowing water penetration into the fruit skins. The helicopter's whirling blades help shed water from the fruit's skin - also preventing the swell-split action of rain on mature fruit. Both interventions are geared to maintain the quality of the ripening fruit.

When asked exactly how close the helicopter has to get to the trees to work its magic, Fowler replied, "I hate to even watch. Our guy hovers about 10 feet above the trees."

Judy Streich, of Streich Orchards in Parkdale, noted that their trees, at a 1,200-foot elevation, were hit with two separate rainfalls over the weekend.

"We used our orchard fans and sprayers to get the rain off," she said. "This is a critical time; we are planning to pick Bings within eight to 10 days. They already have some color."

"We will not pick any sooner than July 27 from our lower valley trees this year," said Fowler. "Historically, it has been around July 16." He said his Odell and Parkdale trees will be harvested much later - into August - with a predicted finish date of Sept. 5.

"We've heard that northern California cherry crops were hit hard with rain," said Streich. "Sadly, that sometimes means that farmers without issues will be in a better position."

"This is pretty high stakes. You can be wiped out in a matter of a few hours," said Fowler, noting the effect of ill-timed rainfall on pending cherry harvests.

"We still have three more days of unsettled weather pending this week," he added. "We'll apply a three-pronged approach: helicopters, calcium chloride and worrying. I've already lost 10 pounds just sweating out this weekend."

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