Cool weather slows development of Mid-Columbia Bing cherries

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJune 12, 2013 

Cool, moderate weather has slowed the development of some cherries, leaving Mid-Columbia farmers waiting for the right size, color and firmness to signal the start of harvest.

"We are anxious to harvest," said Denny Hayden of Hayden Farms Inc., north of Pasco.

Hayden's crew finished picking Chelan cherries Monday, he said. On Tuesday, he and his crew supervisor examined Bing cherries to determine when they would be ready to harvest.

The first 20,000 boxes of cherries statewide from this year's harvest were shipped the end of last week, said James Michael, promotion director for the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima.

Washington grows the most sweet cherries in the nation and about 80 percent of the crop in the Northwest, which includes Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.

Benton and Franklin counties have about 9,000 acres of sweet cherries.

The state's 2011 crop was worth about $534 million. Farmers had a record harvest last year with about 23 million boxes, Michael said.

Going into May, cherry growers expected a crop of about 18 million 20-pound boxes, Michael said. The forecast was downgraded when the trees bloomed and they didn't see as many flowers per bud as last year.

Hayden's cherry trees had a lot of three- and four-flower buds last year, he said. This year, the buds were two- to three-flower, which means the crop already is about 33 percent to 40 percent down.

Still, the quality of those cherries that will be picked should be exceptional, Michael said. With less cherries on the tree, there is more energy available to the ripening fruit.

"The quality of what will hit the shelf this year will be absolutely incredible," Michael said.

Chelan, Tieton and early Robin, an early ripening version of a Rainier cherry, are the first to be picked, Michael said.

A week later or so, Bings and Rainiers become ready, he said. After another week, the Canadian varieties -- Lapin, Skeena and Sweetheart -- usually are ripe and ready for picking.

Warm days earlier this year helped cherries progress nicely, Hayden said. But some cherries in the Mid-Columbia -- including Hayden's early Robins -- were damaged by recent rains.

May featured the earliest widespread 90-degree weather since 1992, the coldest May high temperature and the largest May rain event, according to Washington State University's AgWeatherNet.

The temperature now is in a good range, as long as it doesn't rain, Hayden said.

"We just don't want to do battle anymore with the weather man," he said. "We've had it with him."

The amount of damage varied between orchards, Michael said, but may make finding labor difficult or more expensive to find for some farmers, since pickers are typically paid by the amount they pick.

So far, Hayden said he has been able to find enough labor. Washington farmers with labor-intensive crops -- including cherries, which are hand picked -- have struggled in recent years to find enough workers to harvest those crops.

Hayden hopes his crew will start harvesting Bings in the next few days. He also grows Skeenas, Sweethearts and Rainiers. Most of the industry will be picking next week.

At the peak, Hayden will have about 350 workers harvesting cherries. He has about 450 acres of cherries and apples.

Cherry harvest could last a month for Hayden, depending on weather. Last year, Hayden said they were able to pick for a month and a half.

This year, the crop should be moderate, so it should pick fairly rapidly, Hayden said.

Michael said it looks like there should be a good volume of cherries available in stores by the Fourth of July.

"Look for the cherries in the market, they are going to be wonderful," Hayden said.

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