A recent rainfall was much-needed after such a dry spring in BC’s Okanagan region, but the timing could spell disaster for cherry growers with crops just starting to ripen. Precipitation in late June had some farmers employing helicopter pilots to fly over their orchards to help save the delicate fruit.
“Hiring helicopters is not something we undertake lightly,” said Sukhpaul Bal, cherry grower and president of the BC Cherry Association. “They are very expensive, and if there were another way to save our crop, we would.”
Cherries that are nearly ripe have a high natural sugar content, and this draws in rainwater sitting on the fruit, causing it to swell until it breaks open or splits. Industry representatives say the only practical way to remove rainwater from cherries is to blow it off. The powerful downdraft from helicopter rotors is highly effective in removing rainwater pooling in the stem “bowl” of cherries.
Helicopters can dry an acre of cherries in about five minutes, however they cost growers between $1,000 and $1,600 per hour of flying time. And although blowers attached to orchard tractors can also be used, the process takes 40 to 50 minutes an acre. In a larger orchard, the crop can be lost long before the drying process has been completed.
There is a significant financial impact from the loss of a cherry crop. The most immediate concern is for the farmer, whose family’s entire annual income is often tied to the outcome of this single crop. The BC cherry industry has an annual value in the neighbourhood of $180 million, and directly employs not only the orchard owners, but also pickers, sorters, packing facilities, marketers, distributors, and suppliers. It likewise benefits retailers, and people in other secondary industries, such as the tourist trade. Thus, protecting the grower’s investment is important to the local economy, and there is only a short window in which to do so.
Adrian Arts, Southern Interior Team Lead at the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Food echoed Bal’s message. “Growers understand that helicopter noise can be annoying to nearby residents, and they use helicopters only as a last resort. Orchardists use other means to prevent splitting first, such as the planting of split-resistant cherry varieties, or new varieties that ripen later in the summer when it’s usually dryer.”
When asked about his neighbours’ concerns over early morning helicopter use, Bal praised the local Okanagan residents. “Last year, despite our worries about the annoyance factor presented by the choppers, ninety-nine percent of people were very supportive of the need to rescue our crops.”