An unusually cool and windy June has meant a later-than-normal start for cherry harvest, which is now in its second week. Initial cherries were smaller than desired, but hopes are cherries picked this week will be bigger.
Brenda Thomas, president of Orchard View, said, “We don’t like all this wind, but we always choose wind over rain and excessive heat. Wind is especially damaging for the blush colored cherries.”
Temperatures were only in the 60s as harvest got underway, and the ideal temperature for cherries would be in the 80s, Thomas said.
“Every harvest is different; so far so good,” Thomas said. California cherries have been slow to get out of the market, meaning retailers were a little slower to get into buying Northwest cherries because they have expensive California cherries on the shelf, she said.
“But every day there’s increased interest in the Northwest cherry,” Thomas said.
“There’s usually a gap for us between our early harvest and getting into our Bings, but the gap is going to be longer because it’s cooler, unseasonably cool for the last couple of days,” she said.
The forecast didn’t show the 80s until this week, “but cooler temperatures help us to have really good color, so it’s just going to ripen slower, so it’s not bad for them,” Thomas said.
Orchard View has 3,200 acres of orchard, and at the height of its season will employ about 1,200 people to pick and pack 10-12 varieties. It started picking on June 12, and harvest usually lasts 7-8 weeks, depending on how hot it gets, she said.
“We just don’t know really how this year is going to be yet, it’s too early in the season,” Thomas said. There are too many unknowns, from the weather to markets. But, she said, “Cherry growers are always optimistic. We’re still optimistic for this season.”
Jeff Heater, representing the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers Association, said “Overall quality is looking pretty good. Some blocks are having trouble with the cherries being kind of small. The market seems to still not be filled when it comes to big cherries. Big cherries can go anywhere in the world. The smaller cherries, those usually get sold to lesser markets.”
The smaller cherries being packed now are not quite ¾ of an inch in diameter. Once you get about one-inch cherries “the market’s really good and the prices are great and there’s really high demand for those,” Heater said.
He said growers have plenty of pickers this year. “I’ve not heard of anybody that’s short of pickers.” A lot of pickers come from California, and cherries down there got cut short because of rain, he said.
“There does seem to be a bit of a shortage of crew bosses and tractor drivers, which normally those guys are people that live in the area year round,” he said. “I think a lot of those guys have gone back to work in construction and landscaping and things like that. I’ve got a small orchard myself, but last year a guy helped me finish up apple harvest and he went to work for a construction company because he said he could make more money.”
As for the weather, Heater said last week, “Everybody’s getting tired of the wind because number one, it’s hard to get your sprays on. We have to spray for a pest called cherry fruit fly and most often guys are spraying every seven to 10 days. You can’t put on one spray that takes care of it for the season.”
But most growers don’t spray when it’s too windy out. “That’s what’s been the biggest challenge,” Heater said.
As for temperature, “That heat we had about 10 days ago when it got close to 100 degrees, we’re quite happy it’s not that,” he said. It stresses trees, which means the fruit stays small and it gets soft.
But he said, “We’re all quite happy it’s not raining on our cherries like it did on those poor farmers down in California.”
He said, “All in all, people are pretty upbeat. Nothing terrible has happened yet so they’re kind of waiting on pins and needles for something to disrupt this good fortune we seem to be having right now.”
He said Chinese tariffs, which were placed on American products in retaliation for United States tariffs on Chinese aluminum and steel, caused the American export market to China to be cut in half last year.
“In 2017, we sold over three million boxes to China, and that had doubled from 2016,” Heater said. They were expecting it to double again in 2018, but it was halved instead.
“It’s too early to tell what will happen this year and those tariffs could be removed any day,” Heater said. He said it was just another factor, like the weather and the market, that the typical orchardist has no control over.
With tariffs, he said, “about the only thing you can do is hunker down and hope your sales desk can find another market to sell to.” And they are opening markets in Vietnam, Thailand and India, “but we’re waiting for tariffs to show up in those places too.”
“The fact of the matter is, a lot of the economy in the Gorge is based on what happens in the fruit business. The grocery stores, car dealers and the other businesses. In the Gorge, when the farm industry does well, those other businesses do well,” he said.