How To Grow A Blueberry In The Desert: Tent It

Jul 29, 2016

Organic blueberries are really hard to grow west of the Cascades -- too many bugs and too much disease. And east of the mountains, growers must battle the desert. But one company growing blueberries in south central Washington state may have a solution.

Giant tents.

You can see them from the road near Patterson, Washington. But it’s a totally different experience to be under one. It looks like a gargantuan wedding that just stretches into the distance in all directions.

And from the sky, it’s hard to tell that the white blocks below aren’t buildings.

Rob Wolf manages everything at one of the farms owned by Zirkle Fruit Company, including the 1,000 workers under one of the tents.

“We’re just in our own little world,” he said.

Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network

He’s right. It feels like its own world. This particular tent houses 154-acres of contiguous blueberries -- a quarter-square-mile. Or like 45 Costco warehouses stitched together.

And that’s just one tent. This ranch has several more.

The Zirkle company owns many ranches on a patchwork of farms from the Canadian border to Oregon’s southern flank.

About 10 years ago the company was just experimenting with a bit of cloth for birds and cherries. Now, these tents cover large swaths of of that massive farming operation.

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Harold Austin, another farm manager, said they’re doing this because because organic blueberries are very tender, but are also one of the top money-making crops in the nation.

“What we’re trying to do is take a crop that’s typically grown in 50 to 80 inches of rain in Western Washington,” Austin said. “And we’re trying to grow it in Eastern Washington where we receive less than eight to 10 inches of rainfall annually.”  

Austin said the shade cloth helps farmers grow about about 20-30 percent more marketable fruit by protecting the drip-irrigation pampered berries from the sun and wind. The canopy also keeps many of the birds out. But not all.

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One of the farmworker’s full time job is to walk 10 miles a day under here. He chases the birds that get in here with a long whittled poplar stick and a firecracker pistol. The farmers don’t want the birds to get too comfortable and eat their fill.

Some of the farmworkers here said they prefer working under the canopies, than under the direct sun. It does get humid and hot under the canopy, but Picking crew boss Miguel Lugo said, “It gives you a little more protection from the sun. It’s pretty much like a little shield.”

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The shade cloth is a hassle for farmers though. It costs $15,000 to 20,000 per acre to put up. And sometimes, especially early-on, Wolf said the canopies would fall down or rip apart.

“As soon as one wire breaks, it’s like a domino effect,” he said. “Yeah that wasn’t a great morning for me when I showed up and half of my field was laying over on its side.”

Now they’re better at building the fruit tents stronger for high winds. Just this one farm site alone has a full time crew of a dozen men that maintain the canopies.

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They’re like skilled sailors, except they use motorized lifts to reach the 18-foot-tall billows of scrim. They are constantly repairing holes and tears with plastic zip ties, like thread and needle both.

Cloth suppliers are now bringing in the shade material from China and New Zealand. And they say they’re selling more yards than they ever have.

And soon, we’ll see more and more of the Northwest’s fruit enclosed from view.

Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network