Counties will ask governor for disaster declaration
By SAMANTHA TIPLER
East Oregonian Publishing Group
It's been a bad year for cherries in northeast Oregon.
This rings especially true for growers in the Milton-Freewater area, where about 50 farmers grow the fruit on 850 acres.
Jane Harden, Umatilla County executive director with the USDA Farm Service Agency, said growers face a 70 percent loss this year. That equates to $3.5 million, she said.
But Harden and local officials are hoping to help growers out. On July 13, county commissioners declared it an agricultural disaster area. They will ask Gov. Ted Kulongoski to do the same.
If the governor declares the small harvest a disaster, growers become eligible for a government relief program.
"The way it works is if we're declared a disaster, it opens up a hole for all the crops in the county for the year 2010 -- not just cherry producers," she said. "It's a big deal whether we get that declaration or not."
What caused this huge loss in cherries? Overall, it was a bad fall followed by a bad spring.
From the beginning growers were facing a smaller crop than normal, said Dennis Burks, crop consultant for Blue Mountain Growers. The company represents about 40 cherry growers stretching from the Lower Monument Dam on the Snake River to Milton-Freewater to Cove.
Last year was a bumper crop from Canada to California, Burks said. Cherry growers everywhere had huge harvests. Productivity tends to alternate from year to year, so this year growers knew the crop would be smaller.
Then other problems began.
It started with an early frost in October, followed by late frosts in April.
Between April 4 and 11 temperatures dropped below freezing, said Clive Kaiser, horticulture agent with Oregon State University's extension office in Milton-Freewater. The frost hit many of the flowering cherry trees. Flowers killed by frost can't produce fruit.
That alone cut the crop by 60 to 70 percent, Kaiser said.
"There was a couple nights it really took its toll," Burks agreed.
Then the rains came in May and June.
When it rains heavily, water goes straight to the cherries. They will absorb the water until their skins crack.
"They can only take so much," Burks said. "They absorb so much and then they just pop."
Many of the early varieties of cherries were nearly unharvestable. Kaiser estimated the cracking cut what was left of those early season cherry crops down by another 60 percent. Cracking also affected later ripening cherries, such as bings, by about 12 percent, he said.
Just because growers don't get a good crop doesn't mean they do less work. Burks said they still have to take care of their trees -- especially when it comes to spraying for fruit flies.
The whole valley, or whole industry, has to keep itself free of the pests or they aren't able to ship to places like California. Every grower has to make sure every cherry is fruit-fly free.
Burks' eight acres, where he grows early-ripening Chelan cherries, were affected.
"I've got eight acres of Chelans I couldn't pick because of cracking," Burks said. "But I had to keep spraying to control that fruit fly. I can't affect my neighbor."
Because of continued work like that, and the steep competition in the market, Burks said growing cherries is costly.
"My grandpa used to say, 'Don't ever count on cherries,'" Burks said.
Burks hopes programs like the FSA's will help growers recoup some of their costs.
Last year there were so many cherries, growers were getting their product turned down if they weren't the highest quality, Burks said. This year, companies are having to tell buyers there aren't enough cherries to go around.
"It goes from year to year like that," Burks said. "That's how it can be -- supply and demand."
Kaiser said every dollar in agriculture turns over five times in the local economy.
As an example, with fewer harvestable cherries, pickers couldn't earn as much as before. Burks said they get paid by the box.