When Scott McIlrath heard about the chilly weather forecast for this week, he pulled all the stops to get his Pink Lady and Fuji apples picked as quickly as possible.
He hired additional pickers who had completed work at other orchards. Family members took time away from their other jobs to help. Everyone worked from early morning to early evening.
“Mother Nature throws a curve quite often,” said McIlrath, of McIlrath Family Farms in the Upper Yakima Valley. “We just work around it.
Apple and wine grape harvest will likely finish sooner than planned as growers rush to get their fruit picked before freezing weather arrives in the Yakima Valley.
The low will be just above freezing Friday night, then drop dramatically into the high teens to low-20s overnight Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service in Pendleton, Ore.
Some rain and snow are also expected in the area Friday, although not much accumulation, said Walt Clark, a NWS meteorologist in Pendleton.
Most of the Valley’s fruit wouldn’t hold up at such chilly temperatures, said Frank Lyall, a Grandview-based tree fruit grower.
“At these sustained cold temperatures, I just don’t know how many apples will come through and still be harvestable,” he said.
Luckily for Lyall, he was close to wrapping up harvest for the year. “We’re going to be about 98, 99% done by Saturday,” he said.
If cold weather wasn’t expected, he might have continued a few days, especially if it meant additional time for apples to gain additional color and sugars.
By picking sooner, growers might not get as much for their crops.
“The (more) color, the higher return,” Lyall said. “When we had a surplus — we had a huge apple crop last year — the difference between a positive return and neutral or a negative return on your crop is the color and size.”
This year’s crop is expected to smaller due to other weather issues, including a windstorm over Labor Day.
In August, the Washington State Tree Fruit Association estimated a crop of 134 million 40-pound boxes, which would have matched last year’s volume. However, the association’s ongoing shipment numbers indicate a 4% drop in early varieties.
In September, Washington Apple Commission said it anticipated this year’s harvest would be 10% less than the August estimate.
Damage from the expected cold weather could cause a further reduction in the crop, said Tim Kovis, director of communications and events from the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
The association will have updated harvest numbers next week after it surveys growers, Kovis said.
McIlrath said prices for apples have been higher compared to a year ago. That’s added to the urgency to get as many apples picked as quickly as possible.
Other measures, such as blowing fans in orchards to circulate warmer and drier air, could protect apples from freezing conditions. But McIlrath said the temperatures are so cold he didn’t think the protection would be enough.
McIlrath said concern about the freezing temperatures wouldn’t end once they end. Given that the apple trees aren’t dormant yet, the weather conditions could impact the tree buds.
“After getting the fruit off, that’s the second condition,” he said. “What effect is it going to have on next year’s crop?”
Patrick Rawn of Two Mountain Winery in Zillah has also been shifting schedules to speed the harvest in his vineyards, which supply grapes for several wineries, including his own.
Rawn said he was initially going to wrap harvest early next week.
With wine grapes, cold weather could lead to a freezing of the leaves that prevent them from being separated from the grape. Sometimes, the leaves end up in the tanks and alter the flavor of the wine, Rawn said
Luckily the grapes in his vineyards had the desired sugars and were ready for harvest, making an accelerated harvest scheduled possible.
“Mother Nature told us our season is done, so we’re adjusting accordingly,” he said.
Like the apple crop, the wine grape crop is not as large as in past years, which makes the situation manageable, said Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
While it would have been nice to have some extra harvest days, the situation could have been far worse, he said.
Last year, the region saw freezing conditions in early October and then again in the middle of the month. There was far more fruit still maturing on the vine then, making it challenging to prevent significant damage, Corliss said.
This time around, most grapes have matured, he said. The goal is to get as many grapes picked and in the tank for fermentation as possible before the weekend.
“We’re set up pretty well with getting grapes (picked) in a short period,” he said.