Sweet Success For Area Farmers

Despite a spell of rain preceding a week of above-average heat, local fruit growers are happy with how the season has turned out so far.

Interestingly enough, it’s not how the weather has affected growing conditions that local fruit producers have a grievance with, but rather how the weather has affected consumer turnout.

“Back when we had the rain, we had a little bit of loss on our strawberries,” said Sue Abers, owner of Abers Acres. “But other than that, we were able to pick all of our (produce) before the rain was able to affect it. Other than that, the heat we’ve been having has only helped to make things grow a little faster than usual, which is always a good thing during the busiest time of the season.”

And Rick Walker, proprietor of Walker’s Fruit Basket echoed much of the same sentiment.

“In mid-June, we had a wonderful cherry set, with great potential, and just about the time the cherries started to ripen, we got into a wet period. … After about three days of constant rain, the cherries on the trees will crack open, and after that, they begin to mold and become unfit for sale. In that facet, the rain did hurt Walker’s Fruit Farm a little in the harvest of the cherry crop. We were only able to harvest about 80 percent of the crop, but last year, we lost our entire crop. We’re not complaining, because 80 percent of a crop still is a very nice number, but the truth is that it would have been nicer without that period of intense rain that we had.”

Instead, where the rain, and more recently, the intense heat, has hurt fruit producers the most is how consumers have decided to stay home during inclement weather instead of going to the farms and picking produce.

“The (heat) has affected our ‘you-pick’ operation,” said Abers. “Right now, we’re in black raspberry season, and though we’ll get a few customers early in the morning, everything else has been very slow. No one wants to come out and pick anything in the heat that we’ve been experiencing.”

And although cherry season is over, Walker’s Fruit Basket experienced similar occasions where customers simply didn’t want to pick cherries in the pouring rain.

“All of our cherries are on a pick-your-own basis,” said Walker. “We rely in people who want to come out and hand-select their own fruit, so when the weather is inclement, a lot of us decide not to go because we don’t want to get all wet. If there is lightning, we simply shut down operation, because we don’t want anyone to get hurt. If it’s just raining, we stay open, but no one enjoys standing in the rain. And those who do come out get cold and wet, and they simply don’t pick as many (cherries) as they normally would. So the rain simply wasn’t conducive to the pick-your-own business.”

While you-pick strawberries and pick-your-own cherries are large cash crops for each respective operation, Abers Acres and Walker’s Fruit Basket both grow dozens of other types of produce which they harvest themselves. Just as customers find it difficult to pick in sweltering heat, both operations have had to make adjustments to when they themselves pick, since standing in the sun all day could potentially be dangerous.

“With everything that we have to pick for, we have to just keep going so we can get the orders out, even if we have to sweat to death,” said Abers. “We’ve been having employees come in earlier for work, so we can get the picking done while the sun is still low and it’s not so hot. If it were a bit cooler, everyone would sleep in a bit longer, but that hasn’t been the case this past week. If it’s just too hot to continue, we’ll return to picking once the sun is getting ready to set.”

“Normally our employees here work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but this past week they’ve been coming in at 6 a.m. and leaving at 2 p.m. instead,” said Walker. “There have been times where we’ve sent them home early some days, depending on the amount of physical activity that they’re doing out there. The heat has made things uncomfortable, but not impossible.”

Altogether, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being perfect growing conditions and 1 being a complete loss, both Walker and Abers ranked growing conditions this year an 8.5.

“This isn’t the very best year I’ve ever seen, but I would say things have been good so far,” said Abers. “There have been years that have just been awful, and this year is not that way. We’ve had summers in the past that have been very cold, or very rainy, and things don’t grow or grow then rot. I did feel sorry for dairy farmers this year, because the weather did throw their hay crops off a bit, but I think they’ve found a way to get back on track.”

When asked what single thing he would change about the weather this year, Walker said he would have liked to have seen the rain spread out over the course of the summer, instead of receiving such a heavy amount of it all in one week.

“It seemed like we were very dry up until the 15th of June, and then we got a lot of rain,” said Walker. “Now we’re back into a period of very little rain, and it would be nice to have seen it more spread out instead.”

However, Walker did note that, regardless of the weather, Walker’s Fruit Basket still had a very successful year selling pick-your-own cherries. He is very happy that, despite almost every grocery store in the area selling imported produce, residents are still extremely supportive of local agriculture.

“It is nice to know that, even in a changing world, the pick-your-own industry is alive and well,” said Walker. “We had absolutely no cherries to sell last year, and a lot of people wondered, with so many cherries being sold in supermarkets, would the pick-your-own trade still continue? We saw such a high demand the first few days we were opened – there were such large crowds. It’s good to see that people still want to get out, get on the farm, and pick their own fruit. We simply could not exist without that kind of dedication, and we really, really appreciate it.”