Washington apple harvest nears end

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

It's chilly mornings for pickers as apple harvest winds down in Washington and growers hope to beat rain and snow.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — Frost sparkled on lawns and windshields but hadn’t touched the apples or apple trees when Bill Wacker’s warmly clad crew began picking at 6:30 a.m.

By 9 a.m., Wacker still wore a stocking cap to keep his head warm as he leveled bins of Cripps Pink apples and waited for a truck to arrive and a state Department of Fish and Wildlife specialist to consult about his deer problem.

“We hope to be done (with harvest) this weekend (Nov. 9), weather permitting, and temperatures not below freezing,” Wacker said, mentioning a chance of rain and snow in the forecast.

Morning lows had already been in the upper 20s in the greater Wenatchee area for several mornings, but Wacker said his orchard, called Highlander Orchard, atop a hill between Highway 2/97 and the Wenatchee River’s Sleepy Hollow is “like a little island in the sky.”

Colder air sheds from it like water off a dome, he said. The hilltop stays just a few degrees warmer than surrounding lowlands. This time of year those few degrees are just enough.

A minor frost wrinkles the apples’ skin. Growers prefer to wait for enough warmth for the skin to smooth out before picking. Because of that, frost shortens a picking day.

Repeated freezing is what growers fear more. The apple is dead if its core freezes. A frozen core can turn black.

“Each little frost is like a minor heart attack,” Wacker said, “every time breaks down cell structure.”

Repeated freezing and deep freezes are problematic. Apples have no chance to recover if daytime highs stay around freezing and they can’t warm up.

Wacker finished picking his Red Delicious on Oct. 12. Cripps Pink is one of the latest varieties. This was Nov. 4. Wacker had started picking his Cripps Pink on Oct. 31. Usually, he starts Nov. 1 and is done about Nov. 10. One year it was Nov. 15.

“I like it because not too many growers want to do what I do this time of year, be out here in the cold,” he said. “It’s a good stable market for a tart apple. I can gross close to $28,000 per acre and that’s incredibly good. Honeycrisp can be twice that but that won’t last. It will come down as volume keeps going up.”

Wacker had doubled his crew to 15 and slowed them down to lessen bruising and increase his packout. He slowed them by having them clip the stems, which lessens punctures and bruising.

“It costs me more but I hope to gain all the way around,” he said.

As Wacker’s crew picked, he ran a forklift loading 24 bins on a truck and his wife, Lori, showed the Fish and Wildlife specialist, Joseph Bridges, the evidence of deer. They had munched on tree limbs and rubbed their antlers, damaging trees.

“I fence around each new tree or they gnaw it down to nothing,” Wacker said. “I’ve tried chasing them and Tabasco sauce on leaves. But it burned the leaves, wore off and the deer were back.”

Bridges, Wacker said, offered to send a design for a 10-strand wire fence. Wacker said he’s interested.

“I’ve got to do something,” he said.