Cherry farmers in Washington question if crop will survive unseasonably cold weather

How much of Washington’s cherry crop will survive this unseasonably wintry start to spring? It’s the half a billion-dollar question farmers are asking as large portions of traditional harvest in the state literally hang in the balance between ripening and disaster.

Hauck’s Orchard in Ferndale is in good shape so far. The cherry trees bloomed within the last week. However, if the cold snap continues, owner Helen Hauck said she worries the weather could ruin her largest crop.

"If you see browning on the cherry blossom, that would indicate to me that they’ve been frost-damaged," said Hauck, while showing white flower petals on a cherry tree.

Hauck anticipates she will have cherries this season at her U-Pick orchard. However, the region’s recent unpredictable weather will dictate how much fruit grows.

"It’s been crazy weather over here, too. But that’s the life of a farmer. You’re dependent upon Mother Nature to act nicely," said Hauck.

Mother Nature hasn’t been kind this spring, according to cherry farmers in Washington. The unusual cold snap in the mornings has been below 30 degrees, causing havoc on orchards and the honeybees that pollinate them.

"We have mason bees and they will fly in 45, 46, 47-degree weather. Whereas honeybees will not fly until it’s 60 degrees outside. So, our mason bees are doing the job right now. But they don’t like the cold mornings either," said Hauck.

Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers said cherry farmers in Yakima Valley are feeling it the most. It has been snowing every morning for the past four days covering the blossoms.

James Michael, vice president of marketing North America for Northwest Cherry Growers and Washington State Fruit Commission, said some growers are using propellors, trying to heat and protect their crop.

"A lot of growers have wind machines—propane propellors essentially that just take that warm air that’s rising up and push it back down to protect the fruit," said Michael. "The cost of running your wind machines or some of the heaters just racks up overnight. I talked to one grower in the Yakima area that’s already spent $100,000 on propane alone just to heat his orchard and he’s a smaller grower."

Even with those extreme measures, cherry farmers still may come up short on their harvest. This could mean higher prices for customers at grocery stores and markets.

"Being a farmer, there’s not anything we can do about it except just kiss the crop goodbye and let it go," said Hauck.

The Washington State Fruit Commission said farmers typically round up the first crop estimate during the first weeks in May. This will give farmers a better idea how much the weather has affected their harvest. 

Hauck said, in a good season, her small orchard could produce about 2,000 pounds of cherries. With the ever-changing weather, she said who knows what she’ll harvest this season.

"We are warming, there’s no doubt about it because the fruit is now beginning to bloom. Our plums are beginning to bloom in February when it should be late March," said Hauck. "My birthday is in the first week of April. My mother used to say when the purple plum was in bloom on my birthday, it was unusual. Now it’s in bloom every year. But we have these horrendous weather swings. I mean we had 105-110 degrees last summer during cherry season, thank you, and then we have these horrendous cold spells!"

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