‘Let the Birds Eat Them’: Crops Shrivel as Heat Wave Hits Washington

by Msnbctv news staff

Stacey Sarty’s family has been farming in eastern Washington for generations. But it took the heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest this past week, in the middle of the cherry harvest, for the risks of growing food under such conditions to hit home.

“They’re starting to shrivel and get sunburned, so we’re just starting to skip some trees,” Mr. Sarty, 59, said about the cherries in his orchards.

At a time of epic high temperatures, dried-up cherries with almost no financial value are just one of the problems that farmers are facing in eastern Washington, one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions.

There is also the threat of wildfires, like the blaze last year that set wheat fields aflame and destroyed most of the town of Malden. And the urgent need to rethink work shifts so pickers can labor during pre-dawn hours when it is cooler outside. And the possibility that temperatures could surge again this summer, threatening the apple harvest.

The heat wave upended parts of the Pacific Northwest, with hundreds of heat-related deaths confirmed in normally cool Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Some victims were farmworkers who died while working in the fields. Others died from hyperthermia in their own homes, which had no air-conditioning.

Mr. Sarty is a lifelong farmer who relies on Mexican farm laborers who are allowed to live and work in the United States on a temporary basis. He pays for their transportation and air-conditioned housing while they harvest crops.

When temperatures spiked, he reorganized schedules. Crews began picking at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 9:30 a.m. Going much later would not make sense, not when temperatures were hovering around 100 degrees and the cherries were shriveling. He said it did not even make sense to use the cherries to make juice.

“Juice cherries are worth a penny, penny-and-a-half a pound,” Mr. Sarty said. “You can’t even transport them for that. Just let the birds eat them.”

Others around eastern Washington spent the week looking for a respite from the heat. In the town of Moses Lake, volunteers handed out cold bottled water, hygiene packs and shower vouchers at homeless shelters.

Allen Samosky, who does not have a home and has received some assistance in Moses Lake, was trying to relax one afternoon in the shade at the Neppel Landing park. He said he had a paycheck that was supposed to clear at midnight, money that would help him find an air-conditioned place to sleep.

Elsewhere in town, Beverly Kinder said the soaring temperatures had been especially hard on people who make their living outside, such as her fiancé, who works in landscaping.

“The only way to stay really cool, you go to the lakes and to the canals and the cliffs, and just have fun,” said Ms. Kinder, 46, who has a 15-year-old.

Ms. Kinder, who was cooling off with friends in her backyard one recent evening after swimming in the canals, said it felt strange to grapple with such heat.

“You hear about it everywhere else and then it hits your hometown,” she said.

Diving into the canals is a diversion made possible by irrigation projects developed since the 1940s. The canals helped make commercial-scale agriculture viable in the region, allowing largely barren lands to be planted with crops like potatoes, corn and green peas.

On a recent afternoon when temperatures hovered around 110 degrees, T.J. Johnson, a local resident, took a swim in one of the canals with his pit bull, Freya. Mr. Johnson, sporting a tattoo reading “Country Boy” across his back, said of the heat: “It sucks. I ain’t never felt nothing like it before.”

“We’re used to the heat over here,” Mr. Johnson said. “This is worse than anything we’ve dealt with before, at least in my lifetime.”

Sam Krautscheid, a farmer from the 500-person city of George, said the heat had been a lesson in the ups and downs of agriculture. Because the processor he uses for peas had to condense its schedule by two weeks, Mr. Krautscheid said he would get paid for only about 40 percent of his pea crop.

“Being a farmer, you know, is riskier than going to Vegas,” said Mr. Krautscheid, who is relying on insurance to cover some of his losses. The turn in events left him feeling disappointed.

“Nobody farms for insurance,” he said. “That’s like wrecking the car so you can get a new one.”

Other fallout from the record-setting temperatures included making efforts to battle wildfires — including one just north of Mattawa — more strenuous.

Jason Cirksena, a wildland fire mitigation specialist with the Bureau of Land Management who was on the scene, said he was worried about “roadside starts” of fires from vehicles that could ignite a blaze by dragging a chain or blowing a tire.

In an effort to prevent wildfires, Mr. Cirksena said, authorities were suspending off-road travel, limiting campfires and restricting recreational target shooting.

“As fire starts go, we’re above average now,” he said. “But the worst is yet to come. We are very close to a tipping point in Washington State.”

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