Cool spring, prices add to growers woes at harvest
By ANNA WILLARD
East Oregonian Publishing Group
Sean Roloff is one of many Milton-Freewater cherry growers still feeling the effects of last November's hard freeze and this year's unseasonably cool spring.
"It's been hit or miss," he said. "Some orchards have a normal crop, whereas some orchards are less than 20 percent."
Some growers lost 100 percent of their orchards while others experienced minor damage. The variation in severity of damage is due to temperature variations in the valley, said Dennis Burks, Blue Mountain Growers crop consultant.
A lot of the trees hadn't gone into their dormant period when the frost occurred, which is why it is causing so many problems, Burks said.
"There were some areas of the valley that got down to 12 below and in places closer to town there were areas that didn't even get below zero," he said.
Trees less than 3 to 4 years old and trees over 30 years old suffered the most, Roloff said.
Then, once winter passed, what was supposed to be spring looked more like winter.
"The spring weather was the one-two punch," Roloff said. "There was the early cold snap in November and the cold, wet spring."
One bright spot for growers is the quality of the fruit they are producing, which can be attributed to avoiding rainstorms this year that would have cracked the fruit, Burks said.
Prices for this year's crop started out strong, but as other areas begin to harvest, the prices are going down.
"Here in the Milton-Freewater Valley, we (harvest) a little earlier than Yakima and Brewster areas," Burks said. "Now that other areas are getting started, prices are significantly dropping off on smaller cherries."
But even with decent prices and quality, the production isn't what it should be, which means this year is not going to be a great one.
"My estimate is that we're going to pick 40 percent of a normal crop," he said. "It's kind of a salvage deal."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency offers a tree assistance program to help fruit growers that have experienced more than 15 percent tree loss. The program assists growers financially up to $100,000 in totally replacing trees or salvaging an area, according to FSA.
However, even with the $100,000 in assistance, some growers are not able to cover half the damage, Roloff said.
Those operations will have to scale down, or in some cases start over.
"With orchards you're looking at five years before you ever get a return; it's not so simple as a row crop," Roloff said.
"It's a year you wish you didn't have, but that's the way it goes," Burks said.