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An early start for Whatcom raspberry harvest

A Rader Farms raspberry harvester emerges from a row of berries in a field on Birch Bay-Lynden Road , west of Lynden, Friday, June 26, 2015. The raspberry harvest started last week.
A Rader Farms raspberry harvester emerges from a row of berries in a field on Birch Bay-Lynden Road , west of Lynden, Friday, June 26, 2015. The raspberry harvest started last week. The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County’s raspberry harvest is off to an early start, and farmers are hoping for slightly cooler weather and a little bit of rain.

From u-pick to machine harvesting, activity got rolling last week, with the raspberry crop expected to be mostly complete by the end of July. That’s about two weeks earlier than the typical harvest, said Rolf Haugen, manager at the Northwest Raspberry Co-op near Everson. The co-op handles about 12 million pounds of raspberries a year.

Farmers expect the quality to be good but the quantity lower than in recent years. The lower volume is partly because of the dry, warm weather: The raspberries are not holding in as much water so far this year, leaving a smaller, lighter berry. The weight drop could be around 10 percent this year, said Satpal Sidhu, who operates Lynden Berry Co., which works with local farmers to export raspberries and blueberries.

Henry Bierlink of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission said one farmer recently weighed a barrel of newly picked raspberries at 340 pounds. Typically, the weight of a full barrel is 400 pounds. As farmers are paid by the pound, it will hurt, Bierlink said.

The dry weather has meant the need for more irrigation, but it also means low mold pressure so far this year, according to the Small Fruit Update newsletter, put together by Peerbolt Crop Management.

The raspberry crop is an important economic driver in Whatcom County. Last year, 68.7 million pounds were harvested in the county, setting a record for this area and representing 93 percent of the state’s total crop.

Last weekend’s spike in temperatures almost reached the point where raspberries melt before being picked, which would have been disastrous, Haugen said. The high heat was hard on the workers, who took more water breaks and rest breaks.

“Unfortunately there is no way to turn the (air conditioners) on out here,” Haugen said.

Local farmers also are contending with spotted wing drosophila, a fly that arrived in the Northwest in 2009. It causes damage by laying eggs in ripe, soft fruit. The insect is active much earlier than usual this year, but raspberry farmers have been staying on top of it with sprayings and monitoring, Bierlink said.

Haugen agreed, adding that last year was fairly easy when it came to dealing with the pest, while this year has been more difficult.

As for finding workers for the harvest, Bierlink said it has been a stretch for many farmers, but they’ve been able to fill positions. The shortage of workers is a short-term and long-term issue that needs to be addressed, he said.

Now that the harvest is underway, farmers are hoping for cooler weather with field temperatures in the 70s and 80s rather than the 90s. Haugen said a light rainstorm or two in the coming weeks would help.

But it could be a while before much moisture arrives. Current weather forecasts for Lynden indicate it will remain sunny and dry, with temperatures in the 80s through Monday, July 6.

Reach Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com.

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