LONG BEACH, Wash. — Severe drought persists on Washington’s coast, complicating the region’s cranberry harvest.
“I’ve never had a year like this in 35 years,” grower Malcolm McPhail said. “The weather this year is a tough deal.”
For several months, the weather had been mostly on the side of the state’s cranberry growers, who are concentrated along the southwest coast.
The region’s hottest July on record, sandwiched between its second-warmest June and August, challenged farmers to keep vines from withering. McPhail’s son, Steve McPhail, who also grows cranberries, said that before this summer he had never seen brown spots in bogs.
But berries grow better in the sun than fog. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected in August that this would be the state’s best cranberry crop in a decade. “This year has been good,” Steve McPhail said.
The lack of rain, however, threatens to extend the harvest, putting berries at risk of rot, frost and ripening into a dark color unsuited to consumer expectations.
While some cranberry growers dry pick their fruit, many draw from on-farm ponds to flood bogs, then churn the water to shake loose berries.
With ponds slow to recharge, farmers may have to move slower from bog to bog.
Meanwhile, growers are beginning to contend with colder nights, using up water for frost protection. In the past week, nighttime temperatures started dropping into the 30s, according to Washington State University’s weather station in Long Beach.
Besides ponds, Malcolm McPhail, one of the state’s larger cranberry producers, has water rights to 35-acre Black Lake on the Long Beach Peninsula.
To take advantage of a premium paid by the Ocean Spray cooperative for berries picked before October, McPhail flooded 4 acres with a foot of water on Monday. By Wednesday, he was revising his harvest plans because the lake was dropping too fast.
“I’m slowing down because I don’t want to take any more water out of Black Lake,” McPhail said. “It’s serious. We’re waiting for a big rainstorm.”
In October, the heart of the cranberry harvest, Long Beach usually receives more than 7 inches of rain. The U.S. Climate Prediction Center forecasts that the month has equal chances of being wetter or drier than normal.
The region has some catching up to do. The growing season, May through August, was the sixth driest on record. September so far has yielded about one-third the month’s normal rainfall, according to WSU weather records.
The drought comes as cranberry growers nationwide are struggling with low prices caused by an oversupply. In 2014, a 100-pound barrel of cranberries fetched an average of $29.50, compared to $46.90 in 2012, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Steve McPhail said he will harvest some of his berries after Nov. 1, when again Ocean Spray will pay a premium that will add close to 10 percent to what farmers receive. The premium makes the risks of leaving berries on vines longer worthwhile, he said. This year, waiting until mid-fall may have another benefit — rain.