Race to save the Mid-Columbia cherry crop

Gary Middleton and his crews at Middleton Organic Orchards near Eltopia were in a race against the weather Wednesday.

Just the day before, the orchards were hit by a half-inch of rain in about two hours.

"It was a monsoon," Middleton said. "We had tractors stuck. We had pickups stuck. We had lakes everywhere."

Like other Tri-City area farmers, Middleton has been using a calcium spray, helicopters and wind machines to try to avoid having cherries split when they absorb too much water.

Exactly how many cherries have been damaged by the recent rains is uncertain. Damage has been significant in some areas and for some farmers. Farmers can't sell cracked cherries.

Still, the Washington State Fruit Commission anticipates plenty of fresh sweet cherries available through August. And the quality of the cherries consumers see will be great, industry experts and farmers say.

Saving the crop

Middleton said he'll make out OK, despite the rain. Like others, he planned ahead, used his phone to check about five weather stations, and tried to carefully time his attempts to limit splitting.

His support crew of year-round workers sprays cherries in the orchards until the rain stops. Then a helicopter will make two passes overhead, using the wind from the rotors to shake limbs and knock off moisture.

"It's about saving the crop," he said.

Cherries will only absorb so much water, Middleton said. Then they will split -- most commonly on the top, near the stem, or on the bottom.

On Wednesday, he said he had until Saturday to harvest his organic Bing and Van cherries. The heat anticipated for later this weekend, combined with all the recent rain, likely will destroy what's left.

His cherries are headed to the organic frozen market, so workers were picking them without the stem. The cherries were sweet and firm, fresh from the trees.

"I call them rubies," he said, "mahogany rubies."

Patrick Sullivan, of KP Sullivan Farms north of Pasco, said cherry growers are fighting right until the end.

Many Tri-City farmers already are near the tail end of harvest, although some still are picking Rainiers, Sweethearts and other later varieties, Sullivan said.

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

Sullivan and his employees were finishing up with Bing harvest Wednesday and were halfway through picking Rainiers.

While some of Sullivan's sweet cherries did split after Tuesday's storm, he said the damage wasn't high enough to halt harvest.

"The fruit looks good," he said.

Always a challenge

Early and mid-season cherry varieties have suffered significant damage, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House. Some growers and their employees are field-sorting cherries to take out the splits.

Some warehouses have shut down for a few days to allow the fruit to dry out before packing, he said.

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. The state's 2011 crop was worth about $534 million.

Cherries are always a challenging crop to grow, Middleton said. Common concerns include frost, pollination, adverse weather and shortages of skilled workers to handpick the fruit.

But this year has been one of the most trying cherry harvests Middleton has experienced, he said.

Sullivan echoed that sentiment, saying the rain has been particularly difficult to cope with. While some rain is normal, rain every other day for a couple of weeks isn't.

The Tri-Cities was among the hardest-hit areas in the region by rain Tuesday, said Nic Loyd, Washington State University's AgWeatherNet meteorologist.

The Tri-Cities, on average, saw four-tenths to a half-inch of rain, he said. Other areas, like Prosser, got a third of an inch, and Yakima saw less than a tenth of an inch.

The weather should warm up, with some areas of the Tri-Cities experiencing triple digit temperatures by Sunday or Monday, he said.

The lingering chance of showers should pass for the Tri-Cities by Thursday morning, and next week should be dry, he said.

Still a good crop

Having good-quality fruit on the trees makes weather issues like this year's even more heartbreaking, said James Michael, vice president of marketing for the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima. Still, he anticipates a good-sized crop in July.

Some growers in the Tri-Cities area have had a difficult time this year, while others have seen less damage, Michael said. He expects to see cherries available from now into August.

Earlier this week, almost 3 million 20-pound boxes of cherries had already been shipped, Michael said. Going into May, cherry growers expected a crop of about 18 million 20-pound boxes.

Mayer said he still expects to see a significant amount of good quality fruit harvested in the next few weeks, as late season cherries are beginning to be picked in some areas.

"There is still a lot of cherries yet to be harvested -- good quality cherries," he said.

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-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com