Weather takes toll on some Mid-Columbia cherries

By Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldJune 21, 2013 

cherry sort splitting rain spot mattawa farmers market

Kevin Achelpohl sorts out damaged cherries on Friday at the Richland Farmers Market. Achelpohl owns K&C Farms in Mattawa with his wife Cristina and says the wet weather has been a challenge, both in damaging the five acres of cherries on their 30-acre farm and making it difficult to hire pickers. He says that he, his wife and their daughter Linda had to pick the offerings at the market that day because nobody wants to pick in the rain. "Our place looks like Seattle, man," he says.

KAI-HUEI YAU — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Mother Nature has been fickle this year for cherry growers across the state and in the Mid-Columbia.

She has tossed us cooler than average spring temperatures, then relented with a couple of weeks of hot summerlike weather, followed by rain and unseasonably low temperatures.

And that usually is not a good recipe for cherries.

"Fortunately, cherry growers are used to stress," joked James Michael, promotion director for the Washington State Fruit Commission.

The wet weather problem is two-fold, explained Mark Klicker, a Walla Walla cherry grower.

First, the rainwater sits in the bowl of the cherry near the stem and is absorbed by the fruit.

Then, as the tree pulls water out of the ground, it sends it out, along the branches to the cherries and infuses the fruit with even more moisture.

"Then, when the sun comes out and hits them, that's when you get splits," Klicker said.

He has 34 acres of cherries, three varieties, all red. The early crop, Chelans, were fine, though the crop was light. His mid-season variety, Index, was almost a 70 percent loss.

"There was just too much wind and rain damage this year. Everything was hammered. It was a tough year. The last three days, we just had massive amounts of rain. It's pretty depressing," he said. "I've always said you don't have to go to Las Vegas to gamble, just be a cherry farmer."

He's looking to his late season crop, Sweetheart, to bring in some income. Klicker said they're looking good and won't be harvested until July, when traditionally Mother Nature smiles warmly on the Mid-Columbia.

But don't despair, cherry lovers.

There's plenty of the fruit for consumers to enjoy this summer, Michael said.

"The quality is fantastic. With fewer cherries on the tree, there's more energy available for the ripening fruit. So they're larger, more flavorful and bringing a good price," he said.

The statewide cherry crop is lighter than in past years. Growers harvested a record crop in 2012 -- 23 million 20-pound boxes. Michael said this year's crop likely will run in the 16 million to 17 million box range.

Already growers have shipped 2 million boxes and the season still is early.

Many commercial cherry growers in the Tri-Cities are finished, or almost so, with harvest, Michael said. Only the later varieties are left.

The wet weather should be gone by next week, said Nic Loyd, meteorologist with Washington State University's AgWeatherNet in Prosser.

"The weekend should be dry. There's one more chance of showers on Monday and Tuesday, but then temperatures should be pretty much up to normal, maybe even too much summer with temperatures getting up into the 90s perhaps," he said.

Loyd said the rain's been spotty, hitting one area hard, barely sprinkling in another.

In the Tri-Cities it hasn't been too bad.

Friday afternoon, the Tri-Cities had received about 0.1 to 0.05 of an inch. To the north near Mattawa and to the east near Walla Walla, more than an inch of rain fell.

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