BELLINGHAM — Conditions are ripe for a big year for Whatcom County raspberry farmers, but a few potential problems could lead to trouble in the coming weeks.
Harvesting of the early varieties of the county's biggest crop has already begun, with the rest of the farmers expected to get going in the coming weeks.
For the next 30 to 45 days, thousands of people will be busy working long shifts to pick about 55 million pounds of raspberries, representing more than 90 percent of Washington's crop.
For local farmers, this is an earlier start than in recent years, partly because of the relatively warm winter and spring, said Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission. With little cold weather damage and bees able to pollinate earlier this year, it could mean good news in terms of quality and quantity.
"I would characterize this as a good to very good crop," Bierlink said.
Yet farmers have several concerns that could derail that prediction. The recent stretch of rainy weather has growers worried about mold; a potential heat wave next week could damage the berries; and an Asian fruit fly called the spotted wing drosophila has arrived in Washington earlier than in previous years.
"I might be better off taking my chances at a casino in Reno," joked longtime Whatcom berry farmer Darryl Ehlers. He started running his harvesting machines earlier this week to pick some of his early varieties on his farm north of Lynden.
Ehlers said ideal weather in the coming weeks for his farm would be sunny days with temperatures in the 70s, with rain at night. That would boost his production by 10 percent. If temperatures rise into the 90s and the berries dehydrate, he will lose about 10 percent of his crop.
It appears Ehlers and the other farmers could get part of what they want from the weather during the coming week. Forecasts indicate a drying period through the weekend with temperatures in the 70s. It might get hot early next week, however, with temperatures reaching well into the 80s in Lynden during the first three days of July, according to the National Weather Service.
While the warm winter and spring were good news for the growth of the raspberries, they also meant an early arrival of the spotted wing drosophila. The pest established itself in the Northwest in 2009 and is attracted to overripe, soft fruit. The fly injects its eggs into ripening fruit that is still on the plant, damaging the berry.
The Washington State University Whatcom County Extension office recently sent an alert that some spotted wing drosophila larvae already were found in some local berries and that insecticides need to be applied. The bug is about two weeks ahead of schedule, said Colleen Burrows, agriculture special projects coordinator at the extension office in Bellingham.
"Berry farmers have the tools to manage this properly," Burrows said, adding that it's something they need to worry about earlier than in previous years, which had relatively colder springs.
Ehlers agreed that the flies are fairly easy to kill as long as all farmers stay on top of the sprayings.
"It's something you have to do early on, or else they (the flies) will come on like a tsunami at the end of the harvest," said Ehlers, who likes to refer to them as the "doofus fly" because spotted wing drosophila is such a mouthful to say.
For home gardeners, Burrows recommends that they pick their soft fruit early, often and cleanly. The key is to not leave berries on the plant too long and to pick up fruit that's already on the ground.