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Regional Interests

Heat wave impacted farmers differently across the Northwest

Agricultural businesses across the Pacific Northwest experienced a variety of impacts due to the recent heat wave. For some, the timing of their harvests meant little damage, but others faced major losses for the season. Sunburnt, deformed and stunted growth has made some fruit unsellable, leading to major losses for growers. We hear from Cathryn Polehn-Oxford, a sales representative at Mt. Adams Fruit Company, on what she has heard from farmers across the region. We also hear from cherry orchardist Gary Wade on how this never-before-seen heat impacted his cherry harvest.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. It could get hard soon for northwesterners to find local cherries. The historic and deadly heatwave scorched fruit, stunted growth, and made a lot of it unsellable. For more on what happened. I’m joined by Cathryn Polehn-Oxford. She is a field representative at Mount Adams Fruit Company, and Gary Wade joins us as well. He is a cherry orchardist in The Dalles. Gary Wade and Cathryn Polehn-Oxford, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Gary Wade: Thanks for having us.

Cathryn Polehn-Oxford: Hello.

Miller: So Gary first, what were you and your employees doing just a couple weeks ago during the heatwave? What options did you have?

Wade: Well, we really didn’t have too many options. We were trying to assess how much damage there was, where it was, if we can continue picking or if it was just too far gone. We’re trying to get up at 4:30AM, start picking until maybe 9:00AM when the temperatures got way too high.

Miler: Picking fruit that you thought was ready for market and just get it off the tree as soon as you could. What was your fear about what would happen if you didn’t pick it?

Wade: Well we’ve seen heat damage before. Nothing like what we saw during this episode, but typically, if the fruit’s exposed to the sun and it gets really hot, it’ll burn. But this went way beyond that. Even the fruit that was underneath and had plenty of leaf cover was just kind of cooked from the inside.

Miller: So how much of your harvest did you end up losing?

Wade: Probably around half of it.

Miller: Wow. Can you describe what the cherries looked like?

Wade: Well on the outside, they just turned to raisins. Interior, if you cut them open there were brown spots. Even around the pit it was just dark. It wouldn’t have kept in the box. Even if you got them in the stores, it probably wouldn’t have kept very long.

Miller: You didn’t need to be an expert to know that this fruit was not sellable.

Wade: Yeah. Plus we had field people like Cathryn out there working with us, saying “Maybe it’s better not to pick. Maybe it makes more sense to just leave it hanging.”

Miller: Cathryn, can you give us a sense for what it means to be a field rep for a fruit company? What does that entail?

Polehn-Oxford: Mainly what we do is work directly with the grower. We’re the communication point between the grower and the warehouse. We’re coordinating harvest and informing the warehouse of the type of fruit quality coming in for that day. In those massive heat days, we were looking at potentially having shut a grower off early due to poor quality, and having to relay that information back and forth to the warehouse. And we’re also trying to give the grower adequate information, dollar wise, whether or not it’s worth it for them to continue picking. They’re getting a 50% pack out, that’s borderline, and I don’t want my grower to lose money, so I’m going to try and communicate with them in the warehouse and figure out where that cut off line is.

Miller: A 50% pack out, meaning if you’re only able to get money for 50% of your crop, it may not even make sense to pick any of it. Is that the economics?

Polehn-Oxford: Yep, that’s correct.

Miller: Wow. 50% was the number we just heard from Gary. You talk to a lot of different orchardists. Can you give us a sense for the numbers for cherries that you heard?

Polehn-Oxford: There were cases where I saw down in the 20% pack out, 30s, 40s, and occasionally up into the 60s and 70s through this heatwave. And that was mid-season fruit, where the fruit was mature and ready to be harvested when the heat came. That’s where it did the most damage, on mature fruit. A little bit later-season varieties, like skeena, regina, initially the regina looked like it would fare the heat fairly well, and then every day the quality plummeted. The closer we got to harvest, the worse it looked and a lot of people had to skip over that variety.

Skeena is one that does not take the heat very well, and that’s where we saw some of the worst pack outs. Most people had to just completely skip over those blocks and not even pick at all. Thankfully, with some of these later season varieties or later locations, we’re starting to see better fruit quality, and we’re able to put up good boxes.

Miller: What’s this going to mean, first of all, for farmers and orchardists, and then we can get to consumers. Gary, what does it mean to you to lose half of your crop?

Wade: As a farmer, you deal with climate issues all the time. It’s not the first time that we’ve lost half the crop. But, what does disturb me is obviously, is this going to become the new norm? Are we looking at something where we’re not going to be able to harvest a crop because the climate has changed? That’s a worrisome thought. My son, wife, we’re all involved in this orchard, and I’d hate to think that my son and grandkids can’t farm cherries, we can’t exactly take them out.

Miller: You can’t make the decision this fall, let’s try another crop this year. These are multi-year, many-year orchards. You are wedded to cherries.

Climatologists say that the difference in temperatures will be greater in summer, that’s where a lot of the heating up is going to happen, more so than in winter. We’re also expecting more droughts. What do you think about the future of the kind of farming that you do?

Wade: Well, it’s gonna be challenging. There may be a lot of different things that we need to try. We might have to put up shade cloth, we may have to end up changing what we’re farming though I’m not sure that’s even possible, financially.

Miller: Cathryn Polehn-Oxford, can consumers expect to see fewer cherries at markets and higher prices for cherries in the coming days or weeks?

Polehn-Oxford: We’ve been maintaining prices throughout this entire season.There’s a possibility that pricing could go up, but I can’t see it going up significantly where the consumer would see a giant price hike in the store. There was definitely a time period where we were receiving significantly less volume than we typically would. That was over the 4th of July weekend and into the next week, but we’re back into almost normal volumes, maybe slightly down.

Speaking for our warehouse, we’re pushing out almost as much fruit as maybe we typically would at this time period, maybe slightly less, and we’re it moving out the door quickly. So I think from our warehouse’s standpoint, the consumer is going to see typical pricing and things that they would normally see at this point in time, because we’ve gotten through that glut.

Miller: And Gary, just before we say goodbye, I should note that the next conversation we’re gonna be having about Oregon OSHA’s emergency rules announced last week to have safer workplaces, including farm workers who are working outside during terrible heat events like what we’re talking about here, I’m wondering if you made changes to the timing or the way workers in your orchards were working because of the heat?

Wade: As I said before we started earlier and we stopped earlier. You just couldn’t work out in that heat. And I’ve seen OSHA’s proposed rules or actual rules and it makes sense. But I think we’re already doing those kinds of things, making sure people have plenty of water. There’s typically shade in the orchards so it’s not too bad that way. Just doing what we can to protect our workers. They’re critical. Without them, we’re not in business. We have to have people happy and healthy.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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