As Wildfires Rage, Smoke Chokes Out Farmworkers And Delays Some Crops : The Salt Smoke from wildfires is blanketing much of the West. That's ruining some crops and may be stunting others. And it's making it difficult or unsafe for laborers to pick the harvest.

As Wildfires Rage, Smoke Chokes Out Farmworkers And Delays Some Crops

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This summer, smoke from wildfires has blanketed much of the West for days, even weeks. And that smoke has come in between the sun and ripening crops, which has become a worry for farmers. The Northwest News Network's Anna King reports from Washington state.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: On Mike Pink's farm at dawn, the sun is an angry red ball low in the sky. Farmer Pink watches as his year's work tumbles onto a fast-moving belt into a waiting semi-truck. He's got most of his potato fields yet to harvest, and this smoke makes him nervous.

MIKE PINK: When we're not getting the sunlight like that, the plants aren't growing, and they're just kind of sitting there, doing nothing. And every day that goes by, we lose a day of growth.

KING: Lost sunlight and too much heat lately means his french fry potato crops aren't gaining precious tons. He estimates one week of smoke will cost him around $34,000 for just one of his many fields.

PINK: A couple hundred dollars - $300, $400 an acre that just goes away might be your profit for the year. And when you don't get that profit, I mean, there's always still bills to pay, and so it makes things tough.

KING: At a nearby farm, Alan Schreiber says he's been having to send his 30 workers home around noon. They're wearing masks, but even with them on, the smoke is making people sick with tight chests, itchy eyes and dry throats.

ALAN SCHREIBER: Right now, we're doing a lot of picking. We pick melons and eggplant and peppers and tomatoes. And a tomato's not very heavy, but a five-gallon bucket or a 35-pound crate is heavy, and it's aerobic, and we just felt it wasn't safe for them to be out here - period.

KING: The few remaining masked farm workers are washing squeaky bell peppers and boxing them to ship. Schreiber says he's got a labor shortage now, but this smoke is further complicating life by delaying harvest on those perishable peppers and melons.

SCHREIBER: The same is true for tomatoes. If we're out because of smoke one more day, we will be picking crops and throwing them on the ground because of quality issues.

KING: Schreiber says that translates into real money. He just got two pallets of melons rejected because they were too ripe. That's more than $1,400 lost, with many pallets yet to go.

About an hour away in Prosser, Wash., wine grape scientists are trying to figure out what the smoke means long term for this lucrative northwest crop. In the smoky haze, two postdocs work in a Washington State University experimental vineyard, taking light readings with a sophisticated machine.

ESTHER HERNANDEZ MONTES: The lighting density now is 490.

KING: Their supervisor Markus Keller says what his team has found so far is that the smoke particles diffuse and scatter the light like a photography softbox, lighting and ripening the grapes from all sides at once.

MARKUS KELLER: You can see that the shadows on the floor are very mild right now. If the sun was really strong, they would be almost black.

KING: They keep ripening and sunburn on the fruit is reduced. The only problem - those smoke compounds can get into the leaves and grapes, creating a smoky flavor that's pretty undrinkable. As wildfire smoke becomes more common in the West with climate change, smoke may become a farmer's dependable fifth season.

For NPR News, I'm Anna King outside of Prosser, Wash.


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