Washington leads the U.S. in sweet cherry production and typically out-produces competing states by a wide margin. It is a highly variable crop across the nation because of extreme sensitivity to climate but our state generally will provide from 45-55% of the nation’s production.
Having met with success in our apple efforts, Roy Farms further diversified tree fruit production into this crop in 1983, starting with dark red sweet cherries. We allocated planting to our properties in the Moxee Valley best suited for protection from late spring freezes though we installed wind machines for extra safety. The Washington crop has grown almost three-fold since those days and Roy Farms has grown right along with it.
We added blush (Rainier) cherries to our dark red cherry acreage to meet the complete range of demand and quality requirements of the premium fresh market.
First crop is not available until the third year after planting with yields ramping to full production over the following three to four years. The fresh market is divided only between dark red and blush types, so we do not have varietal “brand” to take into account. Rather, we have chosen our planted varieties for visual and eating quality of the fruit as well as strategic fit into the harvest calendar.
As with apples, Roy Farms works to optimize planting density to soil type and orchard topography. Appropriate trellising works to maximize cherry color, sugar content and minimize disease/insect problems. Getting a nice “open” center of the tree has huge benefits for each of these while reducing damage in the field from wind and rain.
We are constantly experimenting with finding the best regime for training the scaffold limbs of the tree and pruning the fruiting wood to optimize yields and picking efficiency.
Cherry season is a blizzard of intense activity—most of it happens in a mere two-week period though the Washington harvest is spread over a total of 45 days. The target window of interest is, by long tradition, the 4th of July weekend. The American consumer does not eat a lot of cherries per year (about 2 pounds/person) but they buy and eat the bulk of them at this time since the sweet and juicy berry has limited storage life.
On the farm we are constantly monitoring sugar, size and color as the crop matures. When our historical measures for best quality are reached, we move fast...but with a plan. Shallow bins, flats (some call them “lugs”) and ladders are in place just ahead of picking. We implement an integrated staffing plan for picking and, back at our home facility, the cherry sorting line.
Dark red cherries are picked to pouches then layered carefully into shallow bins to avoid bruising. These bins hold only about 150 pounds—deeper, heavier loading would cause crushing of the berries. Rainiers, our blush type (and the sweetest of all cherries), are even more delicate. These are placed in flats of 15-20 pounds for their trip to the warehouse.
At our warehouse facilities the fruit is passed through a hydro-cooler for rapid chilling and then moved to refrigerated storage ahead of the sorting process.