Cherry growers hope to avoid helicopter use

Extended rainfall can damage cherry crops

A deluge of precipitation on Thursday soaked local cherry orchards, causing some growers to call on helicopters to help dry their crops.

The cherry harvest is just starting across the province, a point where minimal rainfall is desired for the ripening fruit.

“Hiring helicopters is not something we undertake lightly,” said Sukhpaul Bal, Kelowna cherry grower and president of the BC Cherry Association.

“They are very expensive, and if there were another way to save our crop, we would.”

Cherries that are nearly ripe have a high natural sugar content, and this draws in rainwater sitting on the fruit, causing it to swell until it breaks open, or splits.

Related: Cherry growers struggle with rainfall fall-out

While 2017 was relatively dry, in July 2016 precipitation was 43 per cent higher than average as helicopter pilots were kept busy trying to keep up with the demand for their services.

Many growers were forced to abandon their crops altogether because of the high rate of splitting due to the unusually heavy rainfall that occurred around the time of harvest.

Industry representatives say the only practical way to remove rainwater from cherries is to blow it off. The powerful downdraft from helicopter rotors is highly effective in removing rainwater pooling in the stem “bowl” of cherries.

While helicopters can dry an acre of cherries in about five minutes, they cost growers between $800 and $1,400 per hour of flying time.

And although blowers attached to orchard tractors can also be used, the process takes 40 to 50 minutes an acre. In a larger orchard, the crop can be lost long before the drying process has been completed.

There is a significant financial impact from the loss of a cherry crop. The most immediate concern is for the farmer, whose family’s entire annual income is often tied to the outcome of this single crop.

The B.C. cherry industry has an annual value in the neighbourhood of $150 million, and directly employs not only the orchard owners, but also pickers, sorters, packing facilities, marketers, distributors, and suppliers.

It likewise benefits retailers and people in other secondary industries, such as the tourist trade. Thus, protecting the grower’s investment is important to the local economy, and there is only a short window in which to do so.

“Growers understand that helicopter noise can be annoying to nearby residents, and they use helicopters only as a last resort,” added Hank Markgraf, grower services manager for BC Tree Fruits.

“Orchardists use other means to prevent splitting first, such as the planting of split-resistant cherry varieties, or new varieties that ripen later in the summer when it’s usually dryer.”

When asked about his neighbours’ concerns over early morning helicopter use, Bal acknowledged the patience of local Okanagan residents for the potential noise disruption.

“In 2016, despite our worries about the annoyance factor presented by the choppers, 99 per cent of people were very supportive of the need to rescue our crops. Comments in social media and in person were mostly positive,” he said.

“We want to thank our neighbours for their overwhelming patience and understanding.”

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