It’s that time of year again.
I’m deep into my sixth season in central Washington State, working as a cherry drying pilot.
It’s an interesting gig. I need to be available to fly at a moment’s notice on any day that it rains. But if it doesn’t rain, I don’t work. And if there’s no chance of rain, I can argue that I have the day off.
So my life revolves around the weather.
I start every day with a look at the current radar on the Radar US app on my iPad or iPhone — and yes, both are nearby, even when I’m in bed. If there’s any rain in the area, I put the radar in motion to see which way it’s going. Then I look at the week’s forecast on the National Weather Service website. If there’s any chance of rain for the day there, I look at the hourly forecast to get an idea of when the rain is expected.
The screenshots here from my iPad gives you an idea of what all of these sources look like right now.
I tentatively plan my day based on this weather information. On a day like today, I won’t wander far from base. There’s a decent chance of rain and a look outside shows me the cloudy day that proves it. Although I won’t get called until it starts raining (or finishes), it could start at any time. So I’ll spend most of the day watching the radar and looking outside, waiting for my phone to ring.
On some days — Thursday comes to mind — it might rain all day. Although it seems like I should be flying all day I only fly when I’m called to fly. My clients don’t want me to fly more than I have to — after all, it costs them money when I fly — so they try hard to wait until they think it’s done raining to call me out. That’s what most of them did on Thursday. They let their cherry trees get and stay wet all day. Then at about 5 PM, my phone started ringing. 12 acres here, 40 acres there. I’d shut down and had even tied down the rotor blades for the night when I got another call at 8:20 PM with a request. I didn’t want to go — I don’t dry after dark — but the sun doesn’t set here until about 9 PM and even though the sun wasn’t out, I thought I’d have enough light to do another 34 acres 20 miles away. So I untied the blades and took off. While I was drying that orchard, a call to dry another 7 acres nearby came in. It was nearly dark when I finished that one, climbed to altitude to avoid wires and other obstacles, and headed back to base. I was on the ground at 9:40 PM — a lot later than I wanted to finish my flying day. But I did have happy clients.
Growers were likely able to get away with the long wet day on Thursday because it was so cool out. But I clearly remember a similar day last year when it rained all day long. Although one of my growers had me come out to “dry” several times during the day, another decided to wait until the end of the day. Guess which grower had split cherries the next day? It was a lot warmer that day and the guy who waited until the end of the day paid for his hesitation with a damaged crop. Unfortunately, he blamed me. I know better, but you just can’t argue with some people. I wasn’t too disappointed to lose that contract for this year. I don’t like taking the blame for someone else’s actions — or lack of actions.
But it makes me wonder: if they’re paying me to stand by and come quickly when called, why don’t they call?
Let’s do the math. A typical cherry orchard can bring in 8 to 15 tons of cherries per acre. If we use a conservative 10 tons (which was very reasonable last year, given the heavy set), each acre of trees yields 20,000 pounds of cherries. I can dry about 40 acres of trees for less than $1000. 40 acres is about 800,000 pounds of cherries. If the grower gets $1/pound for those cherries, that’s $800,000. Is it worth $1000 to protect that? I think so.
Keep in mind that if more than 50% of the cherries split or rot, the crop won’t be worth picking at all.
But hey — it’s their decision. I just watch the weather and fly when I’m called.
Of course, when there’s no chance of rain, I kinda sorta have the day off. I’ll wander farther afield — perhaps to Wenatchee or Leavenworth or even Chelan — keeping an eye on the sky and the radar. I’ll run errands, do chores, visit friends, shop, and eat out. Maybe I’ll take out the kayak on Quincy Lakes or my little jet boat on the Columbia River. The whole time I’m out, I’ll be thinking about the weather, watching the weather, being aware of how long it would take me to get back to base if the weather changes.
Traveling farther from base — for example, to Seattle or Portland — is completely out of the question unless another pilot stays behind to back me up. Right now I have one backup pilot and enough work for both of us. Later I’ll have another and enough work for all three of us. So traveling is not in my immediate future.
My life will go on like this until the end of my last contract, on or around August 15.
I’m not complaining — not at all. Hanging around Quincy and, later, Wenatchee Heights, is not something a reasonable person can complain about. After all, I’ve got all the comforts of home — more, actually, because it isn’t 110°F outside — in my Mobile Mansion. And even now, as I type this, I’ve got 3 racks of St. Louis ribs on my new Traeger grill, smoking away.
With luck, we’ll get a chance to enjoy them fresh and hot before the rain comes.