For every cherry farmer, the key to harvest success at this time of year is fruit maturity, timing, weather and a lot of luck.
Sunday night’s flashy and loud tempest, which swooped in with dazzling lightning, brought brief, heavy rain, thunder and a soaking-wet wave of related challenges to some west valley cherry farmers.
“Most of the rain fell on the west side in the Oak Grove area and there was a report of hail on Dee Highway,” said Corey Yasui, field representative for Diamond Fruit. “We didn’t see significant damage, though — maybe 3-5 percent. It’s fairly minimal.”
Water on mature cherry skins can lead to “soft cherries” or splits. The greatest potential crop loss comes when mature, permeable fruit skins take in water and swell, causing cracks to form, damaging or destroying the final product. Warm weather speeds up that process. Splits equal loss and soft cherries create challenges for packing and shelf life.
Hood River, whose cherry crop tends to mature later than The Dalles, continues to be at the mercy of unseasonable bouts of rain, like the one on Sunday.
When rain falls, costly interventions for farmers begin and removing water from the fruit becomes a race with high stakes.
“They’ll be doing whatever they can,” said Yasui. “The guys will be running their fans and using their sprayers to blow them dry.”
Cooler temperatures overnight Sunday and drying winds may have spared some cherries from “split,” which can occur in warm weather following a moderate rain — particularly when the cherries are close to harvest.
Cherry orchardist Judy Streich said, “If it rains at night or when it’s cool and cloudy or windy, it can help minimize the damage to cherries.”
Often following summer storms, cherry farmers apply a three-pronged salvage operation: low-flying helicopters or fans, calcium chloride and copious amounts of worry and prayer.
The salt spray changes the surface tension of the rainwater, slowing water penetration into the fruit skins.
The helicopter’s whirling blades, hovering very close to the trees, 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.
The praying and worrying? Well, that is just something that comes with the territory.
“With cherries, it’s a worry and concern until you get them in the box,” said Streich.
Streich reported on her Woodworth Drive farm at the 1,200-foot elevation which received only minimal drizzle. “We hardly got a sprinkle up here, thank goodness,” she said.
“We had no rain in the mid-valley. Our cherries are just fine,” said Maija Yasui, whose orchard lies just off of Highway 35.
Packing house field men are now out in the orchards talking with individual farmers to assess the damage and losses. With thunderstorms predicted through Tuesday, after press deadlines, the long-term results will remain to be seen.