Cherries look good, but weather and labor a concern

The cherry harvest is underway in Hood River County and the fruit is looking good, with ripening slightly ahead of schedule.

Jean Godfrey, executive director of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers, commented that this year’s crop was of typical size, with some varieties of cherries “a little heavier and some are a little lighter.” She noted, though, that this spring’s mild weather has pushed fruit out “a little bit earlier” this growing season.

“It’s been a good spring for us,” Godfrey said. “We had good blossoms set and we didn’t have any hard freezes after the blossoms set.”

Chad Wimmers, vice president of raw product at Diamond Fruit Growers in Odell, said Monday afternoon that the dark, sweet Tieton variety has pretty much all been picked in the Hood River Valley, and expected growers would be moving onto the Bings this Wednesday or Thursday.

“Things are going great so far,” Wimmers said. “It’s been a great season.”

Despite the optimism, labor and weather are perennial concerns for both packers and growers and this season is no different than the last. Wimmers reported that valley cherry orchards were “picking out good, but unfortunately labor is a challenge.” He said workers for Diamond growers have been picking an average of 150 tons of cherries a day, but noted that “we’d be close to 200 ton if we had enough labor.”

The job is physically demanding, but can be lucrative, Wimmers said.

“If there’s able-bodied people, they can make a lot of money, but it’s skilled labor,” he explained. “I’d never say that it was unskilled labor. You have to know what you’re doing.”

On top of the labor issue, growers are keeping a wary eye on the forecast. Last year, late-June rains followed by scorching temperatures caused a Bing cherry crop on the cusp of harvest to swell and split, making the fruit unmarketable for anything other than juicing or drying. Some valley orchardists saw split rates as high as 70 percent, which made picking futile. The situation was bad enough that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture declared a natural disaster in Wasco and surrounding counties, including Hood River County, to trigger federal crop insurance programs, according to Kevin McIntyre, executive director for the Wasco/Hood River County Farm Service Agency Office.

So far, the weather has been mostly cooperative in the Hood River Valley. Rain that fell early last week had minimal impact on Hood River cherries, according to Lynn Long, horticulturalist with the Oregon State University Extension Service in Wasco County, which saw 2 percent of the cherry crop split. Mosier, however, saw higher rates that ranged from 5 to 15 percent.

On Monday, Wimmers expressed concern over “some unsettled weather coming up, so we’re trying to work around that.” As of Tuesday morning, the forecast called for rain through Friday, with chances of precipitation ranging from 20 to 60 percent and temperatures in the low to mid-60s.

If that happens, growers may have to break out the frost fans and the helicopters in order to blow the precipitation off the fruit.

“We’ll do whatever we have to to save our crop, Wimmers said.

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