Rain happens every June, and every June growers of all crops stress a little bit.
But shower after shower after shower? This year is unusual and it’s causing more than the normal amount of headaches.
“At this point I just feel so sorry for the growers,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Northwest Cherry Growers. “We don’t know if we’re going to have fruit day-to-day.”
Tuesday morning, nearly all parts of the Yakima Valley received some rain — up to half of an inch in places — which is putting the skids on the region’s lucrative Bing cherry harvest.
Just like many times so far this month, growers stopped picking to fire up the wind turbines, tow empty air sprayers through their rows and hire helicopters to hover over their trees.
“We’re busy across the entire Eastern Washington,” said Troy Wilson, a safety officer with the Yakima-based JR Helicopters. “It certainly does feel like we’re doing a lot more hours.”
In fact, a helicopter from a different company crashed Monday while drying off cherry trees between Royal City and George in Grant County, east of Yakima. The pilot was taken to an area hospital with back injuries and difficulty breathing, according to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office.
Cherry growers have it the worst this time of year because their ripe fruit can split if it absorbs too much water. But rain in late June brings an ironic headache to all sorts of farmers who would love it any other time of year.
“Most farmers love the rain ... it irrigates your crops for free,” said Dan Andrews, a Horse Heaven Hills grower of corn, wine grapes and wheat. “Most of it is a timing issue.”
For example, in June, wine grape growers usually shut off water to encourage ripening of fruit; rain just makes the leaves grow too dense. Hay growers could be in the middle of a cutting, which rain can ruin. Beans and corn, depending on when they are planted, could be seedlings struggling to push through soil muddy and crusted by rain.
“It’s been a very strange month … it just ends up being where you are,” said Nic Loyd, a meteorologist with Washington State University’s Agricultural Weather Network, a system of 146 automated weather stations throughout the state.
The weather feels bad, and is bad for the unlucky growers it picks on, but overall it’s really not much worse than other recent years, Loyd said by phone from the network’s headquarters at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser.
Central Washington has experienced several cool, wet Junes over the past five or six years, he said. In fact, 2011 was the coolest spring since the station began keeping records in 1989.
What makes this year’s rains stand out is that they followed a hot May. And in many places, the rain is incessant and often localized. For example, a swath of Yakima and Benton counties near Grandview has received 1.3 inches so far this year, while the West Valley region has been hit with 0.11 inches, less than 10 percent of that, according to maps posted on the network’s website.
“Some of these systems hit just right, or I guess in their case, just wrong,” Loyd said.
That’s how Don Olmstead of Grandview feels. “As a cherry grower, it’s my turn,” he said.
Early Tuesday, his crews squeezed in an hour of harvest before another downpour started. His Bings are almost a total loss. His Rainiers are weathering the storm, but all told, he may lose one-third of his crop due to rain, poor pollination, a little hail and an early spring frost. A 7½-acre plot near the top of a hill, one of the most resilient cherry properties on his farm, has failed for the first time in his 42 years of cherry growing.
Paul Kilian, a third generation grower who has been working his family orchards for 25 years north of Sunnyside, calls this one of the worst years ever. Since June 18, in one week, he has made five circuits towing his sprayer around his orchards.
After a weekend worth of picking, Kilian estimated he had lost 10 to 15 percent of his cherries, mostly Bings, to rain splits. It has rained twice since then.
He plans to try to pick again today but at some point will give up. He already has been speaking to his insurance agent.
“I don’t know if I’m there yet but I’m pretty close,” he said.
Prices have been high. Tuesday afternoon they ranged between $40 and $60 per box depending on the fruit size, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Market News Service.
However, the very act of drying fruit with wind machines and empty sprayers can cause bruising, which may lead retailers to ask for a price reduction when they get their shipment.
“It’s a challenge,” Kilian said. “It’s part of what we do. It’s part of the risk we take.”
This year’s rain frequency has made industry estimates tricky, Thurlby said.
After a rain, growers usually need two or three days to assess damage. But this year, the rain showers sometimes don’t give them that long, leaving the organization’s crop estimates outdated by the time they’re compiled, Thurlby said.
“A lot of what I tell you is supposition,” Thurlby said.
Here are his best estimates:
• The group estimated rain has destroyed about 25 percent of the Bing cherries, a midseason ripening variety.
• The industry had shipped about 3 million boxes out of the 5 million the predicted back in May for this time of year.
• The organization had been predicting a total of 17 million boxes for the entire year, well below the 23 million last year.
But those were Monday figures; it rained more Tuesday.
Forecasts call for temperatures to reach the 90s by the weekend, giving the industry a chance for more accurate crop prediction next week, Thurlby said.
Mark Roy, a cherry grower in Moxee, conceded that this year’s repeated rain is unusual, even unprecedented, but insisted the region’s overall crop will weather the weather just fine.
He expects to lose between 10 to 25 percent of his Bings, which are right in the middle of harvest.
Tuesday, for the second time this year, he hired a helicopter pilot to hover over his trees to dry them off with the turbine draft, in addition to using his wind machines and tractor-pulled empty air sprayers.
Roy pays helicopter pilots to remain on standby, ensuring his farm is first in line when the rain hits. Then, putting them up into the air costs anywhere from $600 to $1,500 per hour. He calls it “crop insurance.”
However, he has Sweethearts, Skeenas and Rainiers, varieties that will escape damage.
“It’s not all gloom and doom,” he said.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.