CHERRY YIELDS SPOTTY

July 24, 2002 11:00 pm
LAMBERTS: Derek Moore, 16, of La Grande, dumps cherries into crates Wednesday. The Lambert cherry harvest was well under way at the orchard owned by Ron and Betty Puckett of Cove. Due to the freeze cherry growers experienced in May, and the recent heat wave, this season is proving to be worse than hoped for, said Betty. The Pucketts are gradually phasing out Lamberts and replanting Lappins. trees, whose fruit withstands the stress of shipping and stays fresh longer. ().
LAMBERTS: Derek Moore, 16, of La Grande, dumps cherries into crates Wednesday. The Lambert cherry harvest was well under way at the orchard owned by Ron and Betty Puckett of Cove. Due to the freeze cherry growers experienced in May, and the recent heat wave, this season is proving to be worse than hoped for, said Betty. The Pucketts are gradually phasing out Lamberts and replanting Lappins. trees, whose fruit withstands the stress of shipping and stays fresh longer. ().

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

"Some are pickable, some are not. And that's pretty much the situation in the whole Northwest," Cove cherry grower John Miller said Wednesday.

Miller described the situation in his Hidden Valley orchards as one tree fully loaded with cherries, surrounded by two or three trees with no cherries.

Blame the hit-and-miss cherry harvest this year on the weather.

The weather problem, explained Union County Crop Extension Agent Darrin Walenta, depended on where the grower's trees happened to be.

Some cherry trees were hit hard by a late freeze. Other trees lost blossoms to driving rain. A summer hail storm damaged some of the ripening fruit. Just before picking, a heat wave caused more damage in some valley orchards.

Miller is philosophical about the situation.

"That's agriculture. If you're not willing to put up with it, you better hang it up."

For cherry growers, life often appears to range from success to disaster, and not always because of, or in spite of, the weather.

Bruce Pokarney at the Oregon Department of Agriculture notes that there are only a few areas in Oregon that have the right combination of dryness and warmth to even produce cherries — basically Wasco and Union counties.

Statewide, cherry utilization has ranged in recent years from a high in 1998 of 40,000 tons to a preliminary estimated low last year of 30,845 metric tons. The total in 2000 came to 36,000 tons and in 1999 to 35,000 tons.

As with any crop, though, local cherries depend a great deal on the whole cherry market.

While the harvest is down this year, Miller says the whole system is based on supply-and-demand, so since every cherry grower seems to be facing some problems this year, he feels that the demand is up enough to get reasonable prices for his fruit.

If you could get cherries for market.

In Summerville, Dave and Sherry Hug saw their cherry harvest disappear early.

"We froze out just prior to bloom, when they were very vulnerable," Sherry Hug said.

With few cherries to pick, Hug brings up the secondary problem growers are dealing with this year: labor.

"You can't get enough pickers to come in. There's not enough to pick, all over the Northwest. They are paid more for light trees, but they don't want to do it."

As Miller added, he's had to pay pickers more per bucket of cherries, and the harvest started later than usual, on July 14 at his orchards.

But since then, his picking crew has been working steadily except for one day.

Picking possibly damaged cherries also requires extra care.

Miller notes that some cherries, on trees with few leaves, have been "cooked" even before picking.

Others that may have a tiny blemish will be found to have rotted to the pit under that blemish. At least, at Millers, the Lampin variety cherries had "hardly any sun damage" because of thick leaf coverage.

As much as the fortune of cherry growers may be troubled, Miller notes that so far this season, "the market has been very good." Supply is down, so demand appears to be up.

"I'm optimistic, as far as the market goes."

Statewide, cherry growers averaged $760 per ton for their crop in 2000, down from $789 per ton in 1999. In that good year in 1998, cherry sales averaged $847 per ton, Pokarney at the department of agriculture said.

For those who savor fresh Grande Ronde Valley cherries each year, the growers urge a special enjoyment this year. From blossom to fruit on the table, it's been a very spotty year.

Reach T.L. Petersen at

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