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Northwest swelters, leaving growers in uncharted territory

By
Tim Linden

In late June, the Pacific Northwest reached searing temperatures that have never been experienced before, especially this early in the fruit season, which has left fruit producers uncertain of its impact.

 “In my 50-plus years up here, I don’t remember experiencing a day in June when the temperature reached 115 degrees as it did yesterday (June 28),” said Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan Fresh in Chelan, WA.  “This is uncharted territory. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen to the fruit harvested over this period of higher-than-normal temperatures.  This has never happened before. We won’t know until we are looking back at it.”

Brad Fowler, co-owner with his wife, Kathryn Klein, of Hood River Cherry Co. in Hood River, OR, echoed those same sentiments. “We just don’t know how these cherries are going to react,” he said. “We just don’t get temperatures this high.”

He noted on June 29 that the cherries in his district in northern Oregon, which abuts the Columbia River on the Oregon-Washington border, were still about two weeks away from being picked. “We’ve never had this kind of heat this early in the growing cycle. I hate to even say it, but it looks like our fruit hasn’t been damaged. I have never seen what happens to green fruit when it gets hot, but it seems to be handling it.”

Fowler admitted he would know much more in a week or two. “Maybe there is internal browning that I can’t see.”

Riggan said the cherries Chelan Fresh is picking right now look pretty good. He allowed that “time will tell” but added that Northwest packers have the ability with their sophisticated packinglines to put out a good box of fruit as the season moves forward.

He also opined that as bad as the heat is the industry does have strategies to at least mitigate its effects.  “There are three forces of nature that can cause problems with cherries: wind, rain and heat.  I’d rather have the heat because there is something you can do about that to still harvest some fruit.  We have been starting earlier than usual and finishing when it starts getting too warm.”

Fowler said the Northwest has a very good cherry crop this year and so he anticipates that even if the scorching heat causes more damage than he can currently see, the region should still produce a large crop. He also noted that many of the cherry trees in the Hood River region are located in higher elevations where the temperatures did not get quite as hot. “There are many micro-climates (that are home to Northwest cherry orchards) so I am certain that while some growers will suffer losses, others will have very good crops.”

In his orchards, Fowler has crews focusing on changing the water in containers every 15 minutes to create evaporation, which is having a cooling effect in the orchards.

The heat wave has been persistent and widespread throughout Oregon, Washington and British Colombia in Canada. More than 60 cities in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada have already tied or set new all-time heat records, with temperatures above 110 degrees. This includes both Seattle and Portland. Following the Fouth of July weekend, there is expected to be a drop in temperatures but many areas will still register highs in the upper 90s or low 100s.

Fowler did optimistically note as he spoke to The Produce News at about 2 p.m. Pacific Time on June 29 that for the first time in many days he could feel a marine breeze. He said the temperature in one of the lower elevation locations dipped below 100 degrees in the middle of the day for the first time in at least three or four days.

The National Weather Service did report some mind-blowing temperatures. The Dallesport Airport just across the Columbia River from The Dalles, OR, apparently tied an all-time record high for Washington state, soaring to 118 degrees on Monday, June 28.  Another location in the Olympic Peninsula also reached 118 degrees that day. Hood River reached 109 on June 27 and June 28 (108 on Aug. 18, 1977, was the previous record). Portland set an all-time record high temperature three days in a row. Seattle also set its own record on Sunday.

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