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Jose Valencia pulls netting from the bottom of Skylar Rae cherry trees before harvesting Wednesday. Orchardist Dave Piepel says using the netting is an experiment in reducing wind and bird damage. “Last year we got so beat up by the wind we had to try something,” he said.BELOW: Valencia holds up netting as it’s collected in a spool.

WENATCHEE — On Wednesday, as dark clouds gathered across the Wenatchee Valley, the winds picked up and orchardists stared at the horizon with growing apprehension.

It was an interesting situation for Ken Engley, who manages orchards for Dave Piepel. Engley is in charge of 6 acres of cherry trees on Circle Street, several rows of which are covered by large stretches of plastic netting. Piepel is leasing the land from the Appleatchee Riders.

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Jose Valencia holds up netting as it’s collected in a spool.

The netting is part of an experiment to see how it impacts the cherries, Engley said. So far, the cherries have ripened well underneath the netting and it has kept out the birds. But the rain presented a new challenge.

“I was wondering, gosh, is this stuff keeping the water trapped in here where we can’t even blow it out of here?” he asked. “Because eventually the rain drops are going to go onto the fruit. Do I believe it repels some of it? I kind of do. But I’m not certain of that yet.”

Engley had 24 guys working Wednesday night to blow water off the cherries until about 1 a.m. Thursday, he said. But the same drape netting that keeps wind and hail from damaging the cherries may have prevented the blowers from being effective.

He has seen a lot of benefits, though, from using the drape netting, he said. For one thing, it allowed the fruit to ripen to a nice bright color.

“It did make them redder,” Engley said. “So the sun was reflecting between the outside and the inside and it would bounce up around the fruit or something like that.”

Birds also didn’t seem interested in dealing with the netting, he said. Some birds did get past the drape nets, but the amount of damaged fruit was significantly reduced.

“But it actually freaked out the other birds to where the other birds haven’t come into this orchard, and I found that interesting because usually this orchard is just annihilated,” Engley said.

The plan is to test the netting on apples next, particularly the organic kind, he said. One of the challenges the orchardists have experienced with organic apples is pests damaging the crops.

“We had no choice but to switch back over to conventional just so we could continue to farm it because we were getting eaten alive with worms and stuff like that,” Engley said.

He hopes that the netting will make organic farming more realistic, he said.

Tony Buhr: 664-7123

buhr@wenatcheeworld.com or

on Twitter @TonyBuhr