Cherry crops at risk from rain

At Lavington Farm on Friday, helicopters were hired to fly low over the orchard to use the draft from the rotors to blow raindrops from the cherries.

The helicopters are hovering, the fans are on full blast and the sprays have been applied.

But it’s still not enough to prevent some cherries from splitting, rendering them useless on the fresh market.

“Depending on where orchards are, and how much rain and hail they got, damage could be anywhere from zero to 25 to 60%,” said Oliver orchardist Pinder Dhaliwal, who is president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.

“I know some of the Skeena and Lapin varieties of cherries I’m picking right now are split, but the later-ripening Sweetheart and Centennial varieties I have that are still green won’t split.”

Usually, the Okanagan gets more rain in June, when cherries are still ripening and aren’t at risk of splitting.

This year, however, rains have arrived late, right when the earliest cherry varieties are ripening.

“It’s been nasty,” said Dhaliwal, who has 4.85 hectares in cherries. “It’s weird that this weather has come out of nowhere and some of it’s been monsoon rains and even hail.”

Any damage to Okanagan cherries is devastating because growers have only one chance a year with the delicate crop.

Excess rain, like we’ve had for the past two weeks as early cherry varieties ripen, causes havoc.

Cherries have also become the second most-grown tree fruit crop in the Valley, with a volume of about 17,270 tonnes year.

Apples are still king at 111,765 tonnes.

While cherries may be a distant second, they are important because demand and prices are high.

As a result, Okanagan cherry production has increased almost 60% in the past eight years.

Higher-density plantings of varieties that ripen throughout the summer make cherries a desirable fruit for the domestic and export markets, including niches in Asia willing to pay a premium for perfect, fresh cherries.

A split cherry is damaged goods and so can’t be sold on the fresh market.

Some split cherries can be sold as cull fruit for juice or processing.

Generally, orchardists don’t even harvest the split fruit because it fetches such a low price. It’s not worth the cost of hiring pickers and having the cherries sorted at the packing house.

Such fruit usually ends up in the compost heap.

As cherries near ripening, they expand, their skins thin and there’s an accumulation of sugars in the fruit.

At this time, if the cherry is exposed to periods of rain, hail, dew or high humidity, the natural microscopic cracks in a cherry and the stem bowl absorb too much water and the fruit splits.

Solutions to splitting are costly and time-sensitive.

Wind created by the rotors of a helicopter hovering over cherry orchards whisks water off the fruit and dries it.

But hiring a helicopter is expensive and the timing has to be just right.

The same goes for giant fans installed among the trees.

Two types of sprays are useful as rain protectors and split inhibitors, but one has to be applied as part of a two-phase process a week apart and the other has to be applied a few hours before rain starts falling.

Both are hard to time to exactly when the rain will fall.

Recommended for you