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Originally published June 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 2, 2009 at 11:58 AM

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Washington farmers expect to harvest record cherry crop during the next month

It's been an excellent growing season in Washington, the nation's top cherry producer. The harvest will peak early next month, a week later than usual due to a cool spring.

Special to The Seattle Times

YAKIMA VALLEY -- It's a cool, cloudy morning in Peter Verbrugge's orchard near Parker Heights in the Yakima Valley.

Despite its being Sunday and Father's Day, workers remove the tree nets designed to keep away the ravenous birds, then climb short ladders next to the 10-foot dwarf trees and begin to break clusters of deep-red Tieton cherries off the branches.

The workers, mostly Mexican-born men, rapidly fill the 30-pound buckets, which are loaded into bins. A truck hauls the bins to Verbrugge's nearby packing house in Wapato, where the cherries are cleaned, sorted and packaged, then shipped across the country and around the world.

Some of those highly perishable cherries will reach markets in Japan in 36 hours. They're already available at local fruit stands and supermarkets.

It's been an excellent growing season so far in Washington, the nation's top cherry producer, with perfect temperatures since the spring bloom. The harvest will peak early next month, a week later than usual due to a cool spring. The situation is similar in Oregon and Idaho, which also have sizable sweet-cherry crops. California's harvest is already well under way.

"It's looking like a premium crop, with decent to large-size cherries and real good quality," said Wapato grower Gip Redman.

Cherries, with their soft skins, are the diciest of Washington's fruit crops. One hard rain, followed by hot sunshine, can decimate the harvest. Growers have helicopters standing by throughout the two-and-a-half month harvest season, ready to fly low over the cherry trees to blow rainwater off the fruit. Harvest tonnage can fluctuate sharply year to year.

Verbrugge, 41, who with his brother, John, inherited the orchard business from his father and grandfather, nervously checks the weather forecast on his mobile phone. "It looks good if we can get through today and tomorrow," he said. (It rained the next day and he had to call in the helicopter, losing half a day of picking).

The Verbrugges are among Washington's nearly 2,500 cherry growers who farm 38,000 acres. They are expected to produce about 150,000 tons of fruit this year; a record crop of 200,000 tons is possible.

The crop will be worth more than $400 million. About 30 percent of fresh cherries are shipped to foreign markets, mainly in Asia. The varieties include Chelan, Tieton, Bing, Lapin, Skeena, Regina and Sweetheart, which mature at different points.

U.S. consumers probably will be paying $2-$3 a pound, $1 less than last year when the fresh harvest was only 78,000 tons.

"We think the price will be right for consumers on a budget," said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission. "Cherries will be a summer treat that remains an affordable luxury."

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A perennial question is whether there will be enough pickers, who work seven days a week during harvest and average $14 an hour on a piecework basis.

More than 25,000 pickers are needed. So far the supply looks adequate, with migrant workers coming up from Arizona and California, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

The bad economy, and the decline in construction and landscaping work, mean more people -- including some local residents -- are looking for farm field work.

But individual growers don't know on any given day how many people will show up to work. Verbrugge said pickers are in frequent contact with each other by cellphone, comparing pay rates. "You find out very quickly if you're not paying enough," he said.

The growers league, with state funding, supplies seasonal housing for hundreds of cherry pickers. It sets up large vinyl tents on concrete pads, with cots, showers, electricity, kitchens and food storage. That's a big improvement over having workers camp out illegally on state land with no drinking water or bathrooms, which still goes on in some places, according to Gempler.

Verbrugge is more immediately concerned about getting his cherries quickly packed and shipped. He has 250 full-time employees at his new 50,000-square-foot packinghouse working seven days a week in two, 10-hour shifts to prepare the fruit, which comes from several hundred growers.

Cold, chlorinated water hurtles the cherries in chutes through an ingenious clipping, culling, sizing and sorting process, overseen by 175 women wearing hair nets.

Flawed cherries, about 15-20 percent, are separated out for processing into yogurt, ice cream, maraschinos and other products. The good fruit is sorted into five sizes, from 12 row (21.4 mm in diameter) to 8 row (33.3 mm), then packed into two-pound plastic bags and boxed. The bigger fruit sells for significantly more.

Then the cherries are chilled to 34 degrees for shipping. Fruit bound for Japan has to be fumigated for pests. Verbrugge will set up barbecues in the parking lot over the next few weeks to boost morale among the workers, who will be working nonstop to keep the cherries flowing to market.

"There are a lot of moving parts to the cherry business," he said. "I try to worry just about things I can control. That's not a whole lot."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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