Sweet cherries are such a hallmark of Northwest sunshine, it is easy to assume cherry orchards have been here as long as the salmon. But most of the dark sweet cherry varieties hail from species brought to the New World by German immigrants in the 1800s. Also, nothing much was growing in the arid Yakima Valley before irrigation became available in the early to mid-1900s. Today, however, the valley flutters with white and pink blossoms each spring as fruit trees continue in their unwavering mission to further the species. By mid-June, harvest has begun in earnest as Washington reclaims its status as the world’s second-largest producer of sweet cherries.
Perhaps the most widely known cultivar, the Bing cherry, was developed by Seth Luelling (also spelled Lewelling) in 1875 and named for his Chinese foreman, Ah Bing. Other dark sweet cultivars like Chelan, Lapin, Tieton, and Skeena are all genetically identical but bred for specific characteristics like size, sweetness, and juiciness. To reduce confusion, many grocery stores just sell what are labeled, “dark sweet cherries.”
If Bings are prized for their sweetness and deep red color, Rainier cherries are sought for their blushing skins, moon-glow flesh, and hint of acidity to balance a honey-sweet flavor. Rainiers reared their golden heads in 1952, when Bing and Van cultivars crossed; however, the variety didn’t gain popularity until growers better understood how to handpick and gently pack these delicate cherries.
Cherry “tech” has changed drastically in the past few years. Research into health benefits has revealed powerful anthocyanins (natural anti-inflammatories) and ellagic acid (a potent inhibitor to the growth of cancer cells). They have a low-glycemic index, are a good source of fiber, and can even help regulate your body’s internal clock as a natural source of melatonin.
That tech extends to the orchards, where farmers have discovered more efficient growing shapes for the trees. By training two main branches into a V-shape, sunlight penetrates more evenly into the canopy to ripen the fruit. At Eddie Farms, Leah Eddie demonstrated how they are creating tunnels by training lateral branches across the rows. The crossing branches create the tunnel effect that not only boosts the trees’ hormone levels to produce bigger yields, but also allows pickers to reach the fruit without ladders.
One of the region’s largest growers and packers, Zirkle Fruit Company, utilizes netting on its orchards — ranging north from the Columbia River to Chelan — to protect them from rain, hail damage and sunburn; regulate temperatures; and mitigate crop loss to birds. That kind of protection doesn’t come cheaply at roughly $40,000 per acre to install, and $10,000 per acre to remove.
If the temperatures dip too low during pollination, farmers often need to protect against potential frost damage through the use of wind machines or heaters, both of which use portable propane tanks. According to Andy Tudor at Zirkle, the company spent seven figures on propane to heat the orchards for a mere two cold early spring nights this year.
Labor costs are by far the largest investment for cherry farmers, but they will definitely not see a return on their investment unless the cherries make it to consumers fresh and unblemished. In Zirkle’s operation, cherries are hydro-cooled in the orchard, and then transported on refrigerated trucks to its state-of-the-art packing facility. The warehouse contains acres of machines that resemble a sort of Rube Goldberg-esque waterslide park. Every single cherry that comes in is washed, sorted, and individually scanned for size, sweetness, and color at a rate of up to 1,800 cherries per lane per minute (there are 48 lanes). Infrared cameras are able to detect sub-skin bruising invisible to the human eye. The computer automatically routes each cherry to its proper end-destination lane, where a mini-waterfall cools the cherry to 38 degrees before it is packed. Some go into clamshell packages (think Costco) and some into bags for grocery stores. Nine bags make up a 20-pound box; boxes are loaded into cooling rooms, then onto refrigerated trucks that have been backed up and sealed onto the rooms.
From there, the boxes are delivered. In 2017, the Northwest produced a record-breaking 26.4 million boxes of cherries.
For the Love of Cherries
For organic farmer Adolfo Alvarez, the challenge of growing cherries is its greatest reward. He loves walking the “fields” to inspect the trees, looking at individual blossoms to gauge pollination and fruit set potential. He views organic farming as an investment in the Earth and its population, with a desire to leave the soil in good condition for future generations. Like all cherry farmers, Alvarez doesn’t get paid until everyone else takes their cut — including royalties on some cultivars.
Farming is one of the biggest gambles out there, but as Alvarez said, “If you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter.”