Roots and Branches: Blossom quilt turns to ‘funeral pyre’

FIRE blight ravages fruit trees throughout Hood River County, blackening and withering once-fertile branches.

Photos by Maija Yasui
FIRE blight ravages fruit trees throughout Hood River County, blackening and withering once-fertile branches.

Blossom time has long held a special place on our family’s seasonal calendar. It brightens our spirits with its sheer beauty. It tickles our olfactory senses with its heady sweetness and profusion of pollenific delights. It transforms the undulating hills of our valley into a patchwork quilt of creamy golden pear blossoms, prominent pinks and plums of red pears and peaches and the brilliant white of cherries. Each variety of fruit has its own subtle hue, adding depth to the blocks sewn by the farmer’s hand on the fertile valley soil.

‘The Finnish speak of Sisu, continuing what you began no matter how difficult.’

The bloom offers the farmer a brief glimpse of what this year’s harvest may hold, abundant or abysmal, magnificent or mediocre. In the blink of an eye the blossoms are gone, dancing to the earth on the wisps of a gentle spring breeze. With branches cleansed of their fragrant petals, the quilt of pink blossoms is transformed into gradations of green leaves, their shades as profuse as a landscape artist’s palette.

We celebrate blossom time by inviting others to share in this heady experience. Like most positive experiences, there is frequently a downside. While visiting a friend in the Kleenex aisle at Rosauers and gibbering on about the beautiful blossoms, her twitching and sniffling nose alerted me to the dark side of blossom time for some. Those with allergies must admire the beauty of the blooms through oozing eyes and a dripping nose, dampening their enthusiasm for the beautiful flora gracing our valley. As in many life experiences, you must look below the surface of what appears to be to better understand people’s reaction to a presumably pleasing experience.

Once the petals fall, the stamens begin to swell and miniature peaches, cherries and pears begin to form. That is, if the bees have performed their pollenating magic. Farmers cruise the orchard rows getting a visual estimate of how many actual pieces of fruit will emerge from the millions of fallen blossoms. Their experienced eye calculates how many of the tiny pieces of fruit will fall, leaving the larger more dominant fruit in the cluster to grow to maturity.


MID-APRIL: promising branches such as these, if diseased, must be cut away and burned.

This year, the abundance of pear orbs which offered such promise for a bountiful harvest began turning black, symptomatic of a bacterial infection called fire blight. This disease has plagued farmers for eons, appearing and disappearing on waves of warm moist weather and frost damaged trees. It can attack apples and pears alike, but their predominant feast lies in the pear trees which make up much of the valley’s bounty. Branches, blocks of trees, even entire orchards can be decimated by the bacterial infection. Trees that were weakened in the early winter freeze two years ago seem to have borne the brunt of this year’s plague.

The only way to eradicate the blight is to cut the blackened area, disinfect the incision with alcohol or bleach, and burn the infected branches to keep it from spreading. Amputations are performed on a continuing basis, following the blackened line from fruit tip to spur, branch to trunk.

Pillars of smoke rise skyward in the early morning hours, marking the massive funeral pyres of once fertile pear trees. While farmers counted their blessings in the early spring months, having dodged the frost bullet, it appears that the next bullet in the ever revolving chamber is bacterial fire blight.

Many farmers’ debt margin will have gone up in a cloud of smoke this spring. And with still more acts of nature and market fluctuations to contend with, the challenges the farmer will face will continue right through harvest until the fruit is finally sold. Will a summer thunderstorm produce hail that pits the fruit and makes it unmarketable? Will a rain storm split the tender flesh of the cherries or coat it with mildew and render it worthless? Will there be enough hands to pick, sort and pack the fruit and will the market price be high enough to cover expenses or yield enough revenue to pay the bank interest due? Always questions, never answers that you can sleep peacefully with at the end of the day.

So why do people love to farm when there are so many challenges? It is definitely an unpredictable lifestyle, with much of the work checked off as a labor of love. For some it is the challenge of defying the odds, overcoming adversity, and for others it is the connection to Mother Earth and Mother Nature. For some it is the only thing they know how to do, a family tradition, a way of life which makes you strong and tests your mettle. For some it is the richness of the reward of a job well done, raising a bountiful crop, the fruit delectable and the market sustainable. Each farmer holds his own answer within his soul to the age old question of “why?”

For our family, it is the skills we have honed supporting one another in difficult times and rising above these significant challenges to create the panoramic views that others swoon over. To place the very best fruit into the stomach of the hungry, and to create smiles on the face of the consumer when he bites into a luscious pear or peach, apple or cherry. It is seeing a juice stained chin beneath that grin that makes the years’ labor worthwhile. And sometimes it is paying off the bank and having money in your pocket.

Being a farmer builds character and strength. You are custodians of the land that feeds your family and neighbors. You overcome seemingly unbeatable challenges and leave the world a better place than when you entered it. Masuo Yasui and my father Sulo Annala shared that belief, although from very different cultures. It lies deep in the roots of all farm families.

Together we can overcome significant challenges, whether imposed by man or Mother Nature, with the help of one another and the power of perseverance. Native Americans speak of the river that cuts through a rock, not because of its power, but by its persistence. The Finnish speak of Sisu, continuing what you began no matter how difficult. The Japanese speak of adversity building strength, perseverance producing power.

We farmers persevere with help from family and friends.

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