Cherry harvest is underway in the Columbia River Gorge and there are plenty of pickers despite worries that President Donald Trump’s focus on border security would cause laborers from Mexico and Central America to stay home.
“For the most part, all of my growers say they’ve got plenty of people — they’re even turning workers away,” said Jeff Heater, field man for The Dalles Fruit Company, which runs a packing plant in Dallesport.
He works with 30 growers, and is an orchardist himself, so he shares the worry of area farmers about getting a quality crop off the trees and a good price in the marketplace.
“As a farmer you fear the worst, hope for the best and usually get something in between,” said Heater.
He believes one of the reasons so many workers have come to the Northwest is because California, which finished harvesting its cherry crop about 10 days ago, had a record crop. He said by word of mouth, the need for more pickers spread and, once foreign nationals arrived in the U.S., they wanted to get as much seasonal work as possible. So, they travelled to Oregon and Washington to earn more money before returning home.
For the last couple years, the Gorge cherry crop has ripened in warmer than usual weather to overlap California’s season, which created a workforce shortage, said Heater.
He said the timing of California’s harvest has also been good on the marketing front. Instead of having a glut of fresh cherries available to stores all at the same time, Oregon and Washington’s crop is coming in about the time that California’s fruit is off the shelves.
“We’re in pretty good shape this year,” said Heater.
He said rain a couple of weeks ago only damaged about 10 percent of the area’s cherry crop by causing the fruit to absorb moisture that cracked its skin.
Heater was headed June 22 for John Foley’s orchard in Dallesport where Bing harvest had just begun. The harvest of Chelans had concluded with a record crop and Tietons with the best quality ever, so things were looking good for Bings, the most popular variety with consumers and the most widely grown.
Cherries have a short production season, only 65 days from bloom to harvest, so Heater forecasts that most varieties will be off trees in the area by Aug. 5. Higher elevations, such as Dufur, are still two weeks out with the start of Bing harvest.
“Dallesport is usually the place where harvest starts because the soil is sandy and warms quickly, which causes the fruit to ripen earlier,” said Heater.
About 140 pickers are working in eight to 10 different crews on Foley’s Dallesport property. He also has acreage above Dry Hollow Elementary School in The Dalles. On that land, his farmworker housing even has air conditioning units.
Heater said the amenities that Foley makes available attracts workers so that he has no shortage of manpower.
Picking begins each morning at 5 a.m., said Heater, and finishes for the day by 3 p.m. if the weather is moderate. Last weekend’s heat wave found workers leaving the field shortly after noon.
“Super-hot days cause cherries to get soft and some get sunburned,” said Heater.
The faster pickers fill the bins, which each hold about 350 pounds of cherries, the more money they earn. Generally, a big tree laden with cherries will fill more than one bin, said Heater.
A checker on duty at the bin punches the ticket that will determine the pay of each worker. He or she also performs quality control by making sure stems are not removed and the fruit is not damaged in the rush to get it off the tree.
“I feel like the checker has one of the most important jobs in the orchard,” said Heater.
He said about 85 percent of harvested cherries will be sent to domestic and export markets; the remaining 15 percent are damaged or defective in some way and end up in juice or other products.
Tall ladders at Foley’s are maneuvered around in bushy trees with ease by experienced laborers.
“The guys who are really good pickers are efficient with their movements. They are the ones making $30-$35 per hour right now at an average of $3.25 per bucket,” said Heater. “Everybody has their own system and an older guy who’s fast will have others trying to emulate him.”
He said the weather looks good for the next 10 days of harvest, which alleviates a lot of worry for farmers.
While in Foley’s orchard, Heater points out a dead branch that is a visible reminder of the killer freeze in 2014 that destroyed whole blocks of trees in some locations.
“We’re still feeling the effects of that,” he said. “It set our crops back for several years.”