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Weird potatoes, bad berries, hazardous human conditions: Heat takes its toll on Northwest farming

Record heat across the Northwest is taking a toll on agriculture – both the crops and the workers who harvest them. 

Central Washington farmer Alan Schreiber is worried about his fields.

“Melon, watermelon, tomatoes, eggplant, okra. What you call hot crops,” Schreiber says. “But they need a lot of water.”

Schreiber just found out his irrigation pump is only running at 30 percent capacity. It hit 117 degrees in his field Tuesday.

His new water pump won’t arrive until Friday. So now he’s having to make some hard choices.

“We have stopped watering our perennial crops, so we’re not watering our tree fruit, grapes and berry crops,” he says.

Schreiber says those fruits can hold up with less water. 

Agriculture is stressed across the region. Blueberries are ripening so fast, processors can’t keep up. Potatoes, a valuable Northwest crop, are growing in weird shapes, making them hard to cut into fries. Dairy cows produce less milk when overheated, so operators are misting them with water and turning giant fans on them. 

Weird potatoes, overripe berries

Northwest potatoes like heat. Just not this much. And they start doing weird things when it gets this hot. Some tubers sprout knobs or grow into dumbbell shapes.

Mike Pink farms near Pasco. He says some farmers might not even be able to keep their crops going if they were struggling at all before the heat wave.

“This heat is going to take the life out of some of these potatoes that were a little more stressed,” Pink says. “Or maybe they’re not going to live as long. So their life cycle is going to end quicker, so they won’t produce the amount of potatoes at the end that they could produce.”

Across the region, apple growers are keeping fruit cool with overhead sprayers. Blueberries are ripening so fast, farmworkers and berry processors are having trouble keeping up, according to Schreiber, who also directs the Washington Blueberry Commission.

“Western Oregon is getting hit by this, especially in the south, and eastern Washington is getting hit by this. And so there is a lot that’s going to get diverted into processing is my concern,” he says.

That means loads of overripe fruit might be left in the field, made into juice or dumped.

Farmworker peril

Of course, most in peril are humans. Heat is known to kill more people than any other weather-related event. Some workers are picking cherries at night under flood lights. 

Gonzalo Rodriguez is a farmworker supervisor. He says after early morning work, his farmworkers hide in air-conditioned housing watching TV, napping or calling family. 

“You really get tired when you wake up at 4 (a.m.) you start to work at 5 and you finish at 10 or 11 or maybe noon. And then, what you really want and need is to eat and sleep,” Rodriguez says.

The death of a farmworker in Oregon over the weekend is being investigated as heat-related, according to the state’s worker safety agency.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday:

“The United Farm Workers urged Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to immediately issue emergency heat standards protecting all farm and other outdoor workers in the state with a strong agricultural sector. The state’s current heat standards fall short of safeguards the UFW first won in California in 2005 that have prevented deaths and illnesses from heat stroke, the union said in a statement.”

The National Weather Service forecasts the high temps above 100 to continue for large parts of the inland Northwest into next week.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.