Perched high in a fruit tree, 11-year-old Dallas Merritt reached down and dropped handfuls of reddish-black Early Burlat cherries into a metal bucket.
It didn’t take long for Dallas and his siblings, David, 8, and Stephanie, 4, to fill their buckets Friday with help from their mother, Mindy Eagy-Merritt, and grandmother Rita Dash.
“We didn’t think we’d find many cherries, based on what people were saying,” said Eagy-Merritt, who drove her family 30 miles to Emmett from their home in Boise. “But we found there were lots of them, especially higher up in the trees.”
The orchard’s apparent bounty was deceiving. The Rancho Pinard orchard is pinned against Emmett’s South Slope, across an old wooden bridge that crosses the Black Canyon canal a couple of miles south of town. Owner Paul Pinard closed his pick-your-own season Saturday after just seven days.
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Like other nearby cherry orchards, Rancho Pinard’s trees have fallen victim to unseasonable weather.
“Normally, we go for three to five weeks. This year, it’s one week. And I’m better off than others,” said Pinard, who has operated his orchard of about 550 trees for a quarter-century.
Fifteen days of freezing temperatures before fruit trees went dormant in November killed a large number of cherry trees along the dozen or so orchards that dot the South Slope. The hilly ridge spreads west from Freezeout Hill, where motorists coming from Boise head into what was once known as the Valley of Plenty.
A second freeze in April compounded the problem. The month brought several days of temperatures below 32 degrees after the trees had broken out their fragrant white and pink blossoms.
With the 81st Cherry Festival set to begin Wednesday, Emmett sweet cherries are expected to be nonexistent. The cherries available for sale during the four-day festival will come from neighboring Canyon County.
“We had the same problem, but our peaches were more affected than our cherries from last November,” said Dar Symms, one of the owners of Symms Fruit Ranch in Caldwell, which opened its retail store on Monday. “Our cherry crop is generally pretty good. It’s not a full crop, but it’s a fairly good crop.”
Last Friday, signs all along the South Slope announced the cherry orchards were closed. Pinard’s orchard, which attracted a steady stream of repeat customers and first-timers like Eagy-Merriett, was the only one open.
The sweet-cherry crop at Tyler’s Rocky Pointe Orchard, about a mile and a half east of Rancho Pinard, was wiped out completely. The orchard has tart pie cherries available and asks customers to call ahead at 365-8737 to make an appointment to pick those.
Likewise, a telephone recording at Benson Orchards, which has operated on the South Slope since 1920, said its entire cherry crop had been destroyed.
Rue Frisbee, whose family operated Frisbee Orchard for more than 60 years off Frozen Dog Road northeast of Emmett, said the freeze damage ranks among the worst he has seen. The most devastating freeze for his family happened 60 years ago, when he was 10.
“It got real cold too soon and the trees weren’t dormant yet — the same situation we had this season — and we lost the entire orchard, more than 500 trees of Italian prunes and cherries,” said Frisbee, who also was a longtime clerk and supervisor at the Emmett post office. “We just had to pull them out and replant them.”
Idaho ranks fifth nationally in sweet-cherry production, with 5.8 million pounds grown in 2014. Washington was first with 400 million pounds, followed by California, Oregon and Michigan.
In 2013, the most recent year for which sales figures are available, $5.6 million worth of Idaho cherries were sold. That was 4.6 million pounds of fruit.
It is difficult to determine exactly how much of Idaho’s crop comes from Gem County, where Emmett is the county seat. The National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now compiles only statewide totals.
In 2007, the service reported that Gem County had 128 acres of Idaho’s 930 acres of sweet cherry trees. Canyon County had the most, 667 acres. By 2012 — when the service stopped providing county-by-county totals in its five-year reports, to “preserve the confidentiality of individual operations” — statewide cherry acreage had fallen to 600 acres, said Vince Matthews, Idaho statistician for the NASS.
Visitors to Emmett once passed cherry orchards on both sides of Idaho 16 at the base of Freezeout Hill. The South Slope and other pockets in the valley were covered with cherry trees.
The Frisbee orchard was one of the largest cherry operations in Emmett, with 2,000 trees at one point. “Now, I don’t think there’s many more than 2,000 trees in the whole valley,” spread among five or six growers, Frisbee said. He and his wife, Judy, sold their orchard in January.
Bad crop years, tree losses from freezes and a decline in farming in general have led to the decline, Frisbee and Pinard said.
A large amount of land devoted to fruit production — including that at the base of Freezeout Hill — was eventually bought by land developers.
“They stopped planting trees and they started planting houses. There’s more money in houses than in trees,” Frisbee said.
Said Pinard: “When things happen like they did this past year with all of the tree loss and then the fruit loss, it’s hard to keep going.”