The Story Behind Walking the Orchards

What it’s all about.

If you’ve been following this blog, you might know that I’m currently in central Washington state, preparing for a cherry drying gig. The short explanation is that I’m one of many pilots hired by cherry growers to use my helicopter’s downwash to blow rainwater of cherries during the last three weeks before harvest. If the cherries aren’t dried properly, they’ll split and possibly rot and the growers will lose their crop. I’ve written extensively about this and don’t want to repeat it all here. If you’re interested in this kind of work and my involvement, check out the links at the bottom of this post.

My partner in this endeavor, Erik, advised me to “walk the orchards” before I have to fly them. The idea is to get a firm handle on where the orchards are, where the cherry trees begin and end, and where the obstructions are. It’s good advice.

Now this might sound like an easy task, but it’s not. The trick is finding the orchards. All I have is a single set of GPS coordinates that are supposed to mark a point in the orchard and an aerial photo with the “block” of trees outlined with red china marker. If I were flying, I’d probably find the orchard pretty quickly — provided I could figure out where the photo was taken from. But I was on the ground in my truck. And some of these cherry blocks are buried deep within other blocks of fruit trees.

My original list of orchards included nine blocks of trees. Two of them have been cancelled — a late frost damaged some crops and made them unprofitable to cultivate, dry, and pick this year. (If Washington cherries are expensive this year, this is part of the reason.) Yesterday, I walked four of them; today I walked another two.

I’m not going to provide details about these orchards and their exact locations or names or anything else. I don’t want anyone to get pissed off if readers decide to go exploring based on the information I provide. Instead I’ll be vague and skip the names. As you’ll see, names and exact locations don’t matter.

I started with orchards along the Columbia River. The first was very easy to find: it’s the only orchard — cherry or otherwise — in an area being overrun with housing. I knew exactly where it was without using the GPS coordinates. I parked near one corner and got out with a notepad and my Garmin GPSMap 60c. I turned on the tracking feature of the GPS, wiped out the previous track log, and started walking.

OrchardThe 30-acre orchard climbed up the side of a hill. There wasn’t much in the way of obstructions — just a set of power lines along the road on the bottom edge of the field. I noted that when I dried one side of the orchard, I’d be in the backyards of a few houses on the other side of a chain link fence.

CherriesThe trees looked old, with thick trunks and branches cut by aggressive pruning. The cherries were mostly reddening, although some were still greenish yellow. They looked tasty, but I didn’t touch them. I climbed one side of the field and started across the top, which sloped down. I noticed an empty wire animal trap at the base of a tree. The next trap had a large raccoon in it. It looked healthy enough — at least then. Who knows what the grower would do with it? I don’t want to know.

I came down the opposite side of the orchard where a house was under construction within the block. Probably for the grower. It would be a pleasant place to live, near the river, surrounded on three sides by cherry trees. After checking out a packing area in the middle of the block — I’d been warned about wires stretched to places like that — I finished my walk and returned to my truck.

My GPS and drawn a box around the block, following my exact path. Cool.

The next block was a bit tougher to find — mostly because there didn’t seem to be any access road. I wound up making a right instead of a left and passing through a single-lane tunnel under the main road. Then I drove among various blocks of trees until I found the main office and warehouse area. The 8.6 acre block of trees was adjacent to this area.

ObstructionsI could immediately see that this block of trees would be a nightmare. The trees were planted beneath two sets of high tension power lines that crossed the block diagonally. The wires from one set hung low over the block. A tower for the other set stood in the middle of the trees on one end of the block. And just for good measure, there was a drying fan in the field, too.

There was no way I’d get anywhere near about half the trees with my helicopter.

Lower BlockThe other 10.5 acre block in the same orchard was completely different — and a lot easier to find. It lay in almost flat terrain with just two fans and some low wires on one side to worry about. The aerial photo I had showed tall poplar trees on one side of the field; these had been taken down since the photo was taken. I took this photo from the road that wound down to the river. The outlined area is what I’ll be drying. I was lucky; a road wound all the way around the orchard so I drove it instead of walking it.

The last orchard I walked yesterday was a 28-acre block farther downriver. I made my way to it using the GPS for guidance, following the gravel farm roads until I found the cherry trees. Then I shut off the truck and stepped out with my equipment to repeat my orchard-walking exercise.

I immediately sensed a difference in this orchard. First was the shiny metal ribbons that hung on trees. They’d flash in the wind and sun to scare the birds off. Second, was the sound of the bird cannon — a device that uses compressed air to make a loud shotgun blast sound to scare off birds. Later, I saw a bird trap with about two dozen starlings in it. It was obvious that this grower was very concerned with birds stealing his fruit.

The block was really two blocks, one of which was lined on one side by tall poplar trees. There were no wires and no fans. I was making my way down one side of the field when I heard an ATV approaching. A few moments later, I was introducing myself to the grower. He was a friendly man who told me that he rides the blocks a few times a day to scare off birds. We talked about the work I would do and he told me not to dry a specific area of trees. They were Rainier cherries, which bruise easily. He had ground-based equipment to dry those. We also talked about the apricot trees that were part of the block. I’d been warned not to dry them and was interested in seeing what they looked like from the ground so I could identify them from the air. After a 15-minute chat, we parted ways. I continued my walk; he continued on his bird patrol.

I found the apricot trees a while later. They were shorter and their rows lined up with another row of poplar trees. I felt confident that I’d be able to identify them from the air.

Back at my truck, I decided I’d had enough for the day. It was about noon and I was hungry. Since I was halfway to Wenatchee, I figured I’d just drive up there and check it out. I wound up visiting a Petco for birdcage litter and stopping at a Thai restaurant for lunch. I took the rest of the afternoon off.

This morning, I resumed my orchard walks. It was challenging. Although I only visited two orchards, the blocks I was looking for were both very difficult to find. I had to rely on my GPS to home in on each one, following narrow roads between blocks of trees. Later, when I spoke to one of the growers and told him I’d walked his trees, he said, “You found my cherry trees?” I had to explain my methodology. I think he was impressed.

These two orchards were on higher ground and the cherries were far less developed. They were mostly yellow-green and small. The first 12-acre block was on relatively flat ground with wires on one side of the block and a fan (which I couldn’t see) in the middle of the block. It was the only block that used trench irrigation — water flowed in one of two trenches down the base of each row of trees. The second block, which took more than 20 minutes to find, was 15 acres on a steep slope. I got plenty of exercise on my way back up the hill. The views down toward the Columbia River’s steep rocky shores from among the trees were excellent.

I found another orchard after that, but decided to call my contact to make sure I’d be drying it before I walked it. Good thing I did. This is one of the orchards that wouldn’t need drying. Another orchard was also considering a contract change so he could have a dedicated helicopter pilot — which may or may not be me. Either way, that contract would not begin until July 1, so I had plenty of time to explore the block if I needed to.

I pick up the helicopter in Seattle tomorrow. It’s supposed to be a nice day. But the rain comes back on Monday, so I’m likely to start flying then.

But I’m glad I walked the cherry blocks. Now I feel a bit more prepared.

More about cherry drying in this blog:

What do you think?