For while cherry growers produce one of the state's most valuable crops per acre, theirs also is a high-stakes harvest, a gamble in the cherry casino where an entire season's painstaking labor — and investment — can be lost in a passing storm.
[orchard owner Denny] Hayden still remembers such a storm from two years ago: "We got the rain first. It was hard, just buckets, then pretty soon came the hail. The ground was just white. And it was so specific; it did not hit my neighbors. Pretty soon, you feel like, good Lord, what did I do? It was the most beautiful crop I ever had, and we couldn't harvest the fruit."
That's not all. Wind can scuff the delicate skin of the blush varieties,....Then there are the droves of fruit-pecking birds, the threat of killing frost in early spring....Along with the other troubles known to all businessmen;
Hayden pays $13 an hour to pick his blush cherry crop, a strategy to encourage workers to slow down and select for top color and size, picking each cherry by the stem with two fingers and laying, not dropping, it in a bucket worn around the neck, to avoid bruising the tender fruit.
As an incentive to stick with the harvest, Hayden saves his red cherries, which ripen later, for his best workers to pick on a piece rate in which they can make as much as $250 a day. Even so, on a recent weekday, Hayden was short 75 to 80 workers, despite being early in the market and offering work on a big ranch with productive trees with lots of fruit.
"I'm nervous now," Hayden said. "And when we bulk up on cherries and need 300 people, I am worried about it."Odd, with all the people out of work he'd say that.