Orchard View Farms produces cherries and pears in The Dalles in the Columbia River Gorge. (Photo provided by Oregon Department of Agriculture)

Oregon cherry growers are asking state leaders to help them with financial relief after a third bad season spurred by climate change. 

On July 31, Oregon House Rep. Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, asked Gov. Tina Kotek to declare a disaster for the growers.

“In light of current circumstances and to provide the necessary support to our cherished sweet cherry producers, I earnestly request that you declare a state disaster for the Oregon cherry industry,” Helfrich said in a letter to Kotek. 

Such a declaration could allow cherry producers in his district and across the Columbia River Gorge to access federal disaster assistance programs, and potentially lead to emergency funding from the Oregon Legislature. 

Climate change has not only made Oregon’s cherries smaller this year, but it’s also amplified and delayed California’s harvest, flooding the market and infringing on Oregon’s season. 

“Financial losses will be severe for many Oregon sweet cherry producers, and for the farmworkers and communities who rely on the summer influx of economic activity during the cherry harvest,” Helfrich wrote. 

Oregon’s sweet cherry industry can generate up to $80 million in revenue per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The industry had a banner year in 2020, with production worth nearly $134 million. But that dropped by 50% in 2021 to $65 million, rising 5% last year, according to the latest USDA data. The Oregon agriculture industry is worth $5 billion a year.

Oregon governors often declare emergencies for wildfires and drought. But declaring an emergency for an agricultural product is rare.

Helfrich has not gotten a response from Kotek, according to Dru Draper, a spokesperson for Oregon House Republicans, but a Kotek spokesperson, Anca Matica, previously told the Capital Chronicle that the governor was aware that cherry growers were suffering this summer and was trying to find solutions.

“Given the serious impact of these losses on cherry farmers’ incomes, the governor’s office and the Oregon Department of Agriculture have been working with the cherry industry and local and federal partners on the ground to see what resources are available for cherry farmers facing losses this harvest season,” Matica wrote in an email.

Climate change to blame

California’s harvest season, which typically runs from mid-May through June, was three weeks late this year due to an abnormally cold, wet spring, and the state’s harvest was twice the size of last year’s. The late harvest pushed close to Oregon’s harvest season, which typically starts in June and ends in late August, creating a level of competition Oregon farmers cannot compete with, said Mike Doke, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers Association. The group represents more than 400 fruit growers in five counties in Oregon and Washington.

Some growers stand to leave up to 50% of their cherries unpicked, because the cost of labor exceeds the money they could make selling the cherries, Doke told the Capital Chronicle. 

“Two years ago we had the heat dome, and that just baked a whole lot of cherries on the trees,” he said. “Last year was the first time we ever had white blossoms on the trees and snow on the ground. So you had the bloom going on but no bees able to pollinate. This year we had a long cold spring and just as the bloom came on, we had a sudden heat wave, which meant the bloom occurred and the need for pollination came and went real quick, before the bees could really do a whole lot.”

Half the return

These events have driven prices down, with Oregon growers getting about half the profit per pound of cherries as they have previous summers.

Last summer, Oregon cherry farmers were paid $1.10 per pound for cherries. This summer, prices dropped to less than 55 cents per pound.

The growers have discussed their plight for weeks with local leaders and the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Its executive director, Greg Addington, said he’s looking into the possibility of the Legislature offering aid to the growers. At the very least, he said a declaration could assist growers in obtaining federal relief. 

“I just talked to a guy, and he’s saying one grower is not even picking. There’s like 200 tons being left on trees. There’s hundreds of tons that are not going to get picked and the stuff that is getting picked is not covering the costs, is what I’m told,” Addington said. “It’s a bad deal.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.