Our First Harvest
Unlike anything we have ever seen.
These are all words and phrases sent our way throughout and after the 2021 harvest. Typically, it's great to be in a category with such superfluous commentary aimed in your direction. Not this year. All of these words and phrases were emphasizing the challenges of 2021, primarily the "heat dome" in late June and early July. You can also read about the fun of weathering a late frost in a previous post.
The Pacific Northwest was under a brutal attack this year in the form of a climate catastrophe. Farmers and ranchers that have been working the land for generations were no more equipped or familiar with how to manage the summer we faced. While our growing season has come and gone, many are continuing to do what they can to withstand a devastating drought. And, as I noted, adding to the dryness was sustained unseasonable and record-shattering temperatures.
While we were spared from temperatures reaching and staying over 110 degrees, an unfortunate reality for many throughout the Pacific Northwest region, we did see two solid weeks tapping at the hundred mark each day. Nighttime lows barely dropped to average June daytime temperatures. Our mountains were stacked with an average snowpack that seemed better than most, yet the heat obliterated any hope of that extending or relieving any kind of dry summer fallout. Irrigation across the valley was looking grim.
We utilize a drip irrigation system. This is fantastic for water conservation and precision irrigating. It does not, however, do much to help reduce the temperature at the base of the tree like a more traditional sprinkler might. The heat was zapping moisture from the soil in rapid time so we were forced to keep running irrigation cycles through the orchard around the clock. Our orchard is divided into 11 irrigation blocks. Typically, we would try to have each block receive 6 hours of water a week. Instead, during the intense heat we were running in 6 hour intervals in continuous succession in order to shorten the span of time each block was without water. This meant that we could get through the full orchard every 66 hours. It also meant we were up around the clock changing water.
We also had the challenge of our clay soil. Cherries do not like "wet feet"- meaning they don't like to have standing water in their root system. So, we were faced with a pervasive catch-22 of sorts. We needed to keep the water circulating on the trees to do what we could to cool them and keep them from stressing. However, pushing that much water could result in the clay layer holding the moisture against the roots of the most mature trees. We were constantly digging holes and using a moisture meter to try to gauge where we were between these two extremes. There would be no great way to tell whether the irrigation was overdoing it feet below the surface while resembling the surface of Mars at the top- we just had to trust that we were doing what we could and that would be good enough.
The heat is hard on crops for a variety of reasons. The challenge of keeping up the necessary water for growth and development is the most obvious of variables. However, water aside, most crops in our region do not like to grow in extreme heat. Just like all of us, plants slow down and try to conserve as much energy as possible when it is uncomfortably warm. You want to sit on your couch and move as little as possible, hopefully finding ways to cool off. The cherries are no different. The trees can't push growth out into the cherries at those temperatures; they are just trying to conserve resources to survive. So, most of our blocks saw reduced cherry size this year. About half the orchard seemed to be at a critical growth point when the heat hit. When it did cool back to seasonable temperatures, we were outside the window for them to gain much in the way of size.
Additionally, the blistering rays actually sunburned the fruit, turning some of our cherries straight to shriveled raisins right on the stem. The Rainiers seemed especially susceptible to sunburn, and one of our Skeena blocks took a particularly hard heat beating. Even when less visible, the crop as a whole had sunburn throughout the orchard- this can show up looking like a bruise or discoloration. As a commercial orchard, this fact was especially complicating. What may look like solid, clean bin of fruit would show as bruised under the objective and critical eye of the lasers that check for imperfections at the packing house. The packout percentages were abysmal for most.
Yet, we perservered and sent the first commercial crop down the road since the orchard was replanted over 10 years ago. Unofficially, we were able to pick around 100,000 pounds of cherries. The Rainiers (around 20,000 pounds) went to a brining facility to become the top of your sundae or cocktail- less ideal than being in your local grocery produce aisle, but the fruit was pickable. Our earliest variety, the Santinas, were picked to go to the freezer. As we have been determining varieties and grow cycles, we realized we will need to be ready for Santinas a bit earlier in the year than we planned; thus, the fruit may have hung beyond fresh pack timing.
The majority of our Skeenas also saw the path to freezer bags rather than fresh pick. However, we did pick the best sections of those trees and were able to send around 18,000 pounds to the fresh packers. We also picked almost 18,000 pounds of Bentons (our big, delicious cherries) and 3,500 pounds of Bings for fresh pack. We decided the Sweetheart variety didn't size well enough to justify picking commercially, nor are there enough trees to pull a crew to pick.
I have been delaying writing this recap because this season has been hard. It is much easier to wax long about the good and exciting parts of agricultural journeys. We are not naive to the realities of uncontrollable variables in the industry; they are no less hard to ride out. All told, we saw more success than failure. So, I will end with the "good" list to summarize our first-ever harvest:
Ag Labor Camp
We made our mark with the nicest, most desirable camp around! The camp was built by a few of the original cherry growers in the area- the showers say Towle, Miller, and P(uckett?)- and they obviously took care in considering design and location. My hope is to offer somewhere comfortable for our incredible picking crew to live while they are here. They spend over a month in Cove, and it is a point of pride that they found the cabins and the setting of the camp so accommodating. When we were setting up the certificate for the camp, even our OSHA inspector said that had he been there outside of official duties, he would like to inquire about being able to use the camp for his family. My goal is that this always stays a welcome reprieve.
We Grew Cherries
All of the challenges and disappointments aside, it is a striking accomplishment to have taken this orchard to market this year. I don't want to downplay the fact that we pulled that off. Also, given the challenges of the year, we were an orchard among few that were able to carefully salvage a semi-marketable crop. Our larger contractor walked away from 300 acres of cherries on the snake river. My great aunt's orchard in The Dalles was completely wiped between the freezing rain and the heat this year. We didn't get the pack out we hoped for, but we were diligent and determined and got cherries to market.
Shane is Home and the Girls are Thriving
From the earliest posts in this blog, we have described our dream to be together. From the last week of January, that has been the case. It is hard to describe the contentment around not sending our main man off for weeks at a time. It is obvious the added closeness the girls feel with their dad- he has long been beloved in this household, but there is a next level of reliance on him. He has been the glue in all of this. His ability to fix and innovate is awe-inspiring. Throughout the process, we have been asked about our lack of orchard experience. However, everyone we cross within the industry has noted how quickly and successfully Shane has learned the necessary components to give us every chance of success, if success is to be had.
Million Dollar Views
At the end of each day, whether the heavy realities of a tough year hit hard or the lighter adventures of family time buoy our souls, this place is magical. The setting of the orchard on a gentle sloping hillside at the foot of Mt. Fanny provides the perfect theatre seating to stare out across the Grand Ronde Valley. We can see Mt. Emily and Mt. Harris jutting up out of fields of wheat and grass and sugar beets. We have a constant parade of forest critters skirting the lines of our fences. In fact, one night we were watching an elk herd on a hillside and noticed a coyote quietly stalking a pair of white tail deer. An eagle swooped across the sky and into a nearby pine tree while what looked like a rock chuck scurried into a hole in an upright snag. It seemed like the start of a film where a director went a little too far trying to set the scene of being out in nature. We can rest each day in the breath-taking peace and calm afforded by this place we call home.
I promise to be more consistent in this space. My goal was to share all of the pieces as they come. I hope to bring more of the story of the ochard as we slow down into fall and winter. So, as always, stay tuned for more.