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Published July 08, 2011, 09:21 PM

Crop production down for eastern Oregon cherry trees

MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. — Production is down by about 60 percent for cherry growers in Eastern Oregon's Milton-Freewater Valley after an early winter and cold spring.

MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. — Production is down by about 60 percent for cherry growers in Eastern Oregon's Milton-Freewater Valley after an early winter and cold spring.

The East Oregonian reports the worst-hit trees were those older than 30 years or younger than 4 years old. Temperature variations in the valley meant some areas lost their entire crop when winter temperatures dropped below zero, while others survived with most of the crop intact.

"It's been hit or miss," said cherry grower Sean Roloff. "Some orchards have a normal crop, whereas some orchards are less than 20 percent."

Crop consultant Dennis Burks said many of the trees hadn't yet entered their dormant period when an early November frost hit, leaving more damage than most years. Then, a cold spring did further damage and limited trees' output.

"The spring weather was the one-two punch," Roloff said. "There was the early cold snap in November and the cold, wet spring."

Burks said he estimates growers will get about 40 percent of a normal crop. Harvesting will continue in Milton-Freewater until the end of next week.

"It's kind of a salvage deal," Burks said. "It's a year you wish you didn't have, but that's the way it goes."

The quality of the fruit is a small bright spot. Growers said the spring rain that can lead to cracked fruit wasn't as heavy this year.

Prices were also strong in the early part of the cherry harvest in the valley, which gets an earlier start than its Oregon and Washington counterparts.

But those prices have started dropping because other areas are beginning to harvest.

"Now that other areas are getting started, prices are significantly dropping off on smaller cherries," Burks said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency offers a tree assistance program to help fruit growers that have experienced more than 15 percent tree loss. The program assists growers financially up to $100,000 to totally replace trees or salvage an area.

But Roloff said even $100,000 won't cover half the damage to some growers.

"With orchards, you're looking at five years before you ever get a return," Roloff said. "It's not so simple as a row crop."

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