Greetings from Washington’s Cherry Country

Cherry drying season is off to a busy start.

Cherries

Cherries, at the source.

I’m in central Washington state for my third season as a cherry drying pilot. The short explanation of that is that cherry growers often rely on helicopter pilots to hover over cherry trees after a rain to shake/blow water off so the cherries don’t split or rot.

I’m based in Quincy, WA, living in my RV with my helicopter parked across the street at an ag strip. I arrived two weeks earlier than I had to. I didn’t know I was that early — I try to arrive about 5 days early. But my first contract was supposed to start early. It was only after I arrived that the start date was finalized to a much later date. It was supposed to start today.

Rain, Rain, Rain

Meanwhile, it’s been raining like crazy here. In the two weeks I’ve been in Washington, I’ve seen more rain that the past two seasons combined. My buddy, Jim, started a contract down in the Mattawa area about 10 days ago and has already flown more than 10 hours.

How important are helicopter pilots to the success of the crop? Well, this story should give you an idea:

Jim originally had two orchards under contract and was drying both when called to do so. One day, there was a light rain and only one grower called. He dried that orchard, then called the other grower to see if he needed his dried, too. He told Jim that the cherries didn’t seem that wet, that he thought he could dry them himself with the blower equipment he had on hand. Three days later, he cancelled the contract because he’d lost 60% of his crop to water damage after that light rain. He wasn’t even going to bother picking the rest.

The loss of so many cherries in this season’s crop makes the remaining cherries even more valuable. Last season, the problem was that there were too many cherries and the growers weren’t getting a good price. Some of them would have had a loss on their crop, so they didn’t even bother to pick.

But this year, with all the rain we’ve been having, cherries are going to be difficult to protect. Any grower who doesn’t have cherry drying hover service lined up for his orchards will likely lose his crop.

Expect to pay more for cherries this year, folks.

My First Dry

As for me, that first contract started a day early. It rained overnight from Thursday to Friday and was still raining when I got up in the morning. At about 9 AM, my grower called and said he’d likely have me start a day earlier. He launched me at 10 AM, right after the rain had stopped.

The clouds were still low when I made the 6-mile trip to his 32-acre orchard block on the Columbia River. I ducked beneath them and made the steep descent to the river. Remembering the pattern I’d flown the year before, I circled the orchard, descending. I settled into a hover five feet over the tops of the trees in the southeast corner of the block, being careful to avoid the water tower beside the trees there. And then I got to work.

Crescent Bar Orchard

My client’s orchard is the big patch of dark trees in this photo.

This particular orchard is one of the most difficult I’ll have to dry this year. There are trees at various ages and sizes. Some rows go east/west while others go north/south. There’s a gully deep in the west side with trees going right down into it and a house tucked into the south side. And a processing shed in the middle.

The grower arrived about 10 minutes after I’d started. I think he took some video of me flying around. And there were onlookers along the road from the nearby trailer park and condos.

It took me 1.2 hours to get there, hover over all the trees, and get back. The grower waved and stepped into his truck as I left the last tree and started my climb out.

More to Come

There’s a 20% chance of rain tonight and a 30% chance of rain tomorrow morning. So I’d say I have a 30% chance of flying again tomorrow.

While I hate to see the growers spending a lot of money to protect their crop, I have to admit that it’ll be a nice change for me to have a profitable year.

What do you think?