Mixed bag for 2011 harvest

November 2, 2011

Weather in the Valley this year changed faster than a Tim Wakefield knuckle ball.

That might be how local fruit farmers would describe the 2011 growing season now coming to a close.

There were brutal cold snaps last fall before trees went dormant, and there were more hard freezes in February. Hail storms and slow warming trends were followed by rain during critical harvest days. No one knew exactly which way to bat against the pitches fired off by the weather gods.

But still, according to Steve Castagnoli, OSU Extension horticulturist for Hood River County, growers of apples, pears, wine grapes, berries and cherries managed to swing and connect for the most part.

"In general, the season was late. The hardest hit was the Parkdale area but the lower Valley was also variable in volume and quantity," said Castagnoli. "Some cherry growers had a really good year ... Harvests for pears and apples varied block by block - some better than average - some average."

Summaries for harvests of tree fruit, berries and cherries will post after the year's end. Final figures for the wine grape harvest will post in February.

"The recent hard frost essentially ended the wine grape harvest," said Castagnoli. "Apples can tolerate a bit of frost. But grapes were picked as soon as the foliage burned. There are a few apple orchards finishing their pick this week. There are a few pear orchards up in Parkdale still picking as well."

One of the most challenging issues of the season this year was a recurring theme of labor shortages.

Castagnoli said he has received numerous reports of harvests being slowed down by fewer available pickers.

"People are expressing concern. There are fewer workers coming from Mexico. This has slowed things down," he said.

When harvest is delayed, the fruit may not be at optimum maturity -- an important factor in determining how long fruit can remain in cold storage.

"For long-term cold storage (which is a common practice for Hood River tree fruit) maturity requirements are more exacting," said Castagnoli.

If the fruit harvest is delayed, fruit is more likely to suffer from deterioration over time and therefore can be held for shorter periods. That changes marketing plans significantly, and ultimately reduces financial returns to the growers.

When asked about the reasons behind the picker shortage, Castagnoli ventured an idea. "It may be that people are having a harder time getting into the U.S."

Castagnoli was not aware of any organized response to the labor shortage as yet. However, it does seem likely that should the trend continue, local growers will seek solutions.

On another front, local farmers kept an eye on two pest problems that have the potential for significant impacts on next year's season.

"The spotted wing Drosophila followed a similar pattern to last year. After cherry harvest and Bartlett pears, there was a significant increase in their numbers. This is due to ripening wild blackberries during that time. Blackberries are a huge host reservoir for the fly," said Castagnoli.

The fly is a greater threat to cherries, blueberries and cane berries, said Castagnoli. It does not appear to be significant for wine grapes. Blueberry farmers with late-season crops may be the hardest hit by the pests in the coming season.

All growers continue to address management of the fly as part of their regular practices.

The brown marmorated stink bug -- which is forecasted to become established in the Valley as a threat to many crops -- has not made an appearance yet, at least as far as the extension office is aware.

Agriculture and the factors which affect the success of those who practice the science, impacts us all.

With 15,000 acres of Hood River County land planted in crops, 350 commercial farms in the valley and 225,000 tons of apples, pears and cherries produced annually in the Mid-Columbia area, a change in the weather or the arrival of a tiny insect can have repercussions for the entire community.

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