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Originally published July 1, 2012 at 9:52 PM | Page modified July 2, 2012 at 5:58 AM

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State's cherries are sweet gamble for growers

So tricky to grow, such a delectable summer treat: Washington cherry growers take another spin in the cherry casino, as they bring in the state's most high-risk crop.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ELTOPIA, Franklin County —

Denny Hayden is packing heat: a Bluetooth in one ear, cellphone holstered on his hip — and rosary beads and holy medals in his jeans pocket.

"And if that doesn't do it, I've got Tums and Excedrin," Hayden said. "And a prayer book. And if all that fails, I have whiskey."

Some Washington cherry growers may not go quite as far — or at least not admit it. But they tend to be a superstitious lot. They've got their reasons.

A truly seasonal fresh fruit, cherries are a signature taste of summer, one of life's sweet and simple pleasures that belies all the fret and fuss behind the scenes.

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.

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, those devilishly persnickety Rainier and Early Robin cherries, with their yellow and red coloration as carefully cultivated as any belle's complexion. Then there are the droves of fruit-pecking birds, the threat of killing frost in early spring, and the dirty word no one should say in any orchard heavy with nearly ripe fruit: rain.

All it takes is a summer shower to swell the fruit, already fat with juice, until its skin splits. So much for the lucrative fresh market; that cherry is now a cull, as that lower class of fruit is known in the processing trade.

"It would be a lot easier if I went every year to Vegas and threw my money on the table, instead of this water torture," Hayden said. But you can tell he doesn't mean it. Cherries demand growers like him, with a passion for perfection, world-class control freaks always on task. If they were dogs, they'd be border collies.

Growers in the early-harvest districts have already wound up their picking, while statewide the harvest was hitting its peak over the weekend. The weather has been troublesome, with rain showers and unseasonably cool temperatures in some parts of the state vexing growers. Hayden faced three rain showers this harvest season, including one that started at 3 a.m. last week. No matter: He called in the tractor sprayers to blow calcium on the trees to slow the uptake of water into the fruit by osmosis. They also blasted the trees with air to move their branches, spilling rainwater out of the tiny dip in the top of the cherry where the stem joins the fruit — a place vulnerable to cracking.

Then, at first light, he called in the air force: a helicopter pilot he keeps on standby for $600 a day (with a three-week minimum) to fly over the trees to dry them. All because of just three-tenths of an inch of rain that fell over eight hours. It was a rain that wouldn't wet the dust on the ground — but was all it took to raise the cull rate, escalate production costs and halt harvest for the entire day. Just as critical are the workers. In the frenzy of the cherry harvest, they will climb 10-foot ladders up and down all day, visiting and revisiting the trees a minimum of three to five times to pick each cherry as it comes to maximum size and ripeness.

As the harvest got under way on a recent weekday morning, Ubaldo Garcia looked over the fruit-laden branches and quickly selected only the reddest, biggest cherries. A regular in this orchard every season, his reason was simple. "Paga bien," Garcia said: It pays well.

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." With a record 20 million-box crop predicted statewide, he had good reason.

Altogether, Hayden, 61, and his brother Randy, 59, grow 150 acres of apples and 250 acres of cherries. Most days during harvest, Hayden is up by 3:30 a.m. and having breakfast with his crew chief, Mario Velazquez, by 4 to talk over the day and get ready for the workers, who will be on their ladders by 5. "Just another day in cherry land," Hayden says.

Another day and another chance at hitting it big in a season when it just might all come together: the quality of the crop, the right weather, a crack harvest crew and a good market that can make cherries one of the most valuable crops, worth $10,000 and more per acre. There's the pleasure, too, of a job well done.

Hayden peered down the barrel of a refractometer like a battlefield general, squeezing a Rainier cherry's juice into the device to sample its sweetness. "Twenty-six," he said with a smile, for that's way above the industry standard of 17 percent sugar. A moment's victory — then it was back to work.

His phone went off; Velazquez needed something, and the refrigerator truck rumbled at the farm gate as workers loaded it with the day's pick. A sweet jackpot of fruit on this perfect summer's day. So far, all cherries, no lemons at all.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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