Not Your Typical “Ship”
Why cherry growers are investing in helicopters.
Ideal cherry forecasts call for blue, clear, sunny skies and warm, dry days. But typical spring and early summer Pacific Northwest weather also brings potentially harmful rain to farmers. In case it does rain, growers have sought ways to protect their soft-skinned, highly perishable red and yellow fruits during the harvest season. That is why the smell of rain in the short months of cherry harvest is accompanied by the hum of helicopters.
These aircraft machines are an important aspect in the cherry industry because they act as a type of insurance for cherry growers. Once the cherries start turning red (or have ripened to the desired maturity), they lose quality if they absorb water in their bowl-like tops. Water causes the fruit to expand, resulting in growth too exponential for the delicate skin’s cell structure to maintain. This growth causes the skin to split, crack, or burst, and the excess water absorbed by the cherries results in soft, mushy fruit, especially in exported cherries.
Helicopters, then, are utilized for flying over the cherry orchards and blowing the water off the tops of the fruit. At the end of the day, growers who get their cherries dry the fastest will often have higher quality fruit than their competitors. In attempts to ensure helicopters fly over their orchards first and minimize rain damage, growers have begun purchasing their own helicopters to dry their fruit even before the rain has stopped.
It takes skilled pilots and long hours to keep the thousands of Washington cherry acres dry. These pilots fly a variety of ships, from small, maneuverable carriers to large, ground covering crafts. For example, Gebbers Farms in Brewster keeps former military helicopters in its hangars. These particular helicopters are chosen for their weight. At 12,500 pounds (versus 1,000-2,000 pound smaller helis), these ships have more downward force, meaning more wind, cherry drying power, and area covered in one pass along an orchard.
Producers hope to get the cherries off the tree as soon as possible once they are ready and before they start turning soft. Ideally, there would be no rain events during this short window of time. Helicopters help to maintain the fruit’s quality and price when it does rain so growers can pick the fruit as soon as possible and pack it for the customer.