Helicopters were shaking water off cherry trees in some Tri-City orchards at first light Saturday morning.
Farmers were trying to keep the early morning rain from causing the cherries to crack and ruin the crop.
During the five hours or so of rain, cherry farmer Jim Kelley had about 30 workers spraying calcium dissolved in water on his cherries to slow the rate they absorbed rainwater.
"We had a whole army of people out all night trying to protect the crop going from gold to garbage," he said.
Kelley, who owns about 235 acres of cherry trees in Benton and Franklin counties, said while not all growers use helicopters, he does, because he isn't willing to risk his crop, which grows in 17 locations.
The helicopters hover about 15 to 20 feet above the cherry tries, which shakes the water from the trees, he said.
"They've got to have the nerves of steel," he said of the pilots.
Central Valley Helicopters of Ellensburg had several helicopters in the Tri-Cities area Saturday drying cherries.
Owner Ron Cline said his company acts as an emergency responder for what they call "rain events."
Like a big hair dryer, the helicopters simply blow the water off cherries, he said. They hover, moving forward at about 12 miles per hour.
The challenge is flying at a constant air speed and counting rows to make sure an orchard is completely covered, with no area left unblown, said Cline, who has dried cherries in the Tri-Cities for about 35 years.
Sometimes the helicopters already are drying the cherries while the rain continues, he said.
Growers contract with Cline's company ahead of time because there aren't enough helicopters to cover every grower, Cline said. And focused resources are necessary for the drying to be effective.
"This is a very effective and expensive tool," Cline said. "If used properly, it's a great benefit to the cherry market and the cherry growers."
Central Valley Helicopters already dried some Tri-City cherries in May, he said. The need for drying when it rains all depends on the maturity of the cherries.
Cline said he will have helicopters in the area through Monday because of the well-forecasted rain Sunday night and Monday. Tools like that help reduce costs to the grower because it allows for planning.
Cherries are the only fruit dried by helicopters, Cline said.
Cline said he apologizes for any inconvenience to the community. His company does its best to be conscientious of the public while protecting the cherry grower's investment.
"There is no value to a split cherry. It's just an expense," he said.
It does tend to rain around Memorial Day weekend and the first part of June, Kelley said. Like frost in the spring, rain near and during harvest is a risk cherry growers take.
"They are more susceptible the riper they get," he said.
Had the rain fallen in the daylight, Kelley said it likely would have been devastating. Warmer weather causes the cherries to absorb the water more quickly.
On Saturday afternoon, Kelley was checking on cherry orchards. Kelley, a consultant for 30 other cherry growers in the area, said it appears most orchards got through with minimal damage.
Kelley, a Washington State Fruit Commission member, said they are about a week to 10 days away from the beginning of cherry harvest.
His 250 workers will harvest cherries for about three weeks, picking around 160,000 pounds of cherries a day, he said. Cherries have to be handpicked to avoid damaging the fruit.
His cherries are sold to Sage Fruit Co. of Wapato.
Right now, Kelley said he is encouraged that he and other cherry growers will see superior quality fruit this year. There was minimal frost in the spring, and great pollinating weather.
"If Mother Nature doesn't mess it up, we should have an exciting crop to get to the consumer," Kelley said.
But more rain is in the forecast for tonight. Kelley said he hopes to have a fourth helicopter available to protect his cherries by then. He contracts to have helicopters on call and available, whether it rains or not.