In the back yard of our home in Aptos, CA, we have a cherry tree. It's easily as old as our house and about as tall (40 feet at its highest point). The variety is Queen Anne - a yellow cherry with a red blush that sizes very well and has excellent flavor. We moved in our home towards the end of April last year, just as the tree was finishing its bloom. From May through mid June I excitedly watched the fruit get larger and color change from green to a yellow/red. Midway through the second week in June, I decided they were ready and planned to harvest them with my son the following Saturday - the fruit was plump and beautiful; a few more days on the tree I thought, and the sugar would be just right.
Cherry orchard - Oregon
That Saturday we trudged up the hill to our cherry tree only to find it picked completely clean. The crows, according to my neighbor, had swept in the day before and beat us to the harvest. We were devastated and the following Monday I called one of the farmers I knew who grew cherries for advice. His first response was - "Oh yeah, crows. You should have picked them on Wednesday." He also mentioned the big cherry producers use a device that makes a loud noise like a gunshot every few minutes to scare away birds - not a method he recommended for residential pest management. So I've purchased some tree netting and I'm nervously scanning the skies as harvest day approaches. I also have a new appreciation for one of the many challenges the industry faces in bringing this spectacular fruit to market.
Immature fruit - Washington
The domestic cherry season in the produce world is a time of high emotions - the season is very short, the product is extremely difficult to grow and harvest and the transportation must be fast and exact. In addition to crow invasions, commercial cherry growers contend with a myriad of conditions that can kill a season. Like apricots, many cherry varieties bloom early so they are susceptible to late winter storms and cold weather damage. Rain close to harvest time can also be catastrophic - causing water-filled cherries to literally split on the tree. Harvesting is also an extremely delicate process as all cherries (particularly the yellow varieties) are extremely susceptible to bruising. The reward is worth the risk though - a 12-week cherry season can generate as much income to farmers and retailers as an entire year of orange sales.
Harvested fruit prior to sorting for size - Oregon
It's in the transportation of cherries where the anxiety level really goes up - a truckload of cherries totals some 2,500 boxes (or 45 to 50,000 pounds of fruit). This means including the cost of transportation every truckload on the road is valued at well over $100,000. A friend in the industry once compared shipping cherries to riding cross country in an expensive sports car made entirely of butter - you'll do fine as long as the temperature doesn't change. And it's true - a change in temperature a small as five degrees can radically affect the arrival condition of the fruit on the other end of their journey. So scheduling pickups is a exacting dance, you want to pick up the fruit as soon after packing as possible but not so soon that you are unable to cool it down to the right temperature for transport. Once loaded the temperature must remain constant for the entire journey to keep it fresh.
In the winter we have an offshore season with cherries coming from familiar places for import fruit (Chile) and some not so familiar places (like Tasmania). The season for cherries domestically starts in late April and generally finishes by mid-August. Like most tree fruit there are several areas in the country where we see large scale production - California, Oregon, Washington State and Michigan are among the largest producing states in the U.S. Varieties will also change as the season progresses - starting with the early varieties like the Burlatt and Lapin, followed by later baring varieties like the Brooks and Tulare. The most common red variety produced in the U.S. is the Bing- a consistent, high yielding, firm variety that has proven to be a very reliable producer.
Rainer Cherries - Washington State
One thing to note about the 2009 season is a marked increase in organically grown cherries. Organic acreage in Washington State will more than double this season, enabling retailers to load more frequently and maintain a fresher supply. The peak season for organically grown cherries will run from late June through July and, weather permitting, the product quality should be the best ever.
In the past most cherries were shipped in bulk but lately growers and shippers, like their counterparts in the berry industry, have opted to pack cherries in bags and clamshells to minimize handling damage. Selecting cherries is a lot like picking a good container of strawberries - you should carefully inspect the container from all angles to insure there is no split and leaking fruit. A sticky bag is generally an indication there is damaged fruit in the bag (or box it traveled in). Cherry stems should be green and full - dry, shrunken stems are an indication the fruit is old. Many early varieties are soft to the touch but once the season is in full swing your cherries should be purchased firm. Color (inside and out) is a factor but is very variety specific - most folks think of the dark red (almost black) cherry as the ones that have the best flavor but the truth is many varieties that do not color up as dark taste just as good if not better during the course of the season. For the yellow varieties it is much easier to spot bruising on the surface - the light brown spots are almost impossible to avoid but if a bag has more bruised cherries than not, they should be avoided. You can also freeze cherries to enjoy off-season.
The best test though is taste - in my days working in the stores you could tell when the cherry season started by the trail of cherry pits that started in the produce department and went around the store. The joke with customers then was we would weigh their children on their way into the store and again on the way out - charging them the difference in cherries. But the truth is the season is so short and there are so many grades of fruit sold that it pays to try before you buy.
My son Aidan is talking about camping out in the backyard for the first part of June. I remember now that my great aunt used to hang aluminum pie pans on her fig trees to scare birds away. I'm happy to share but I would like a little for myself so if anyone has some non-violent crow repellent ideas I'm all ears. In the meantime I have my grocery store backup - provided by the brave souls who produce cherries for a living. As long as you are willing to grow them, we will do our best to sell (and enjoy) them.
Queen Anne Cherries in my back yard- Aptos
Many thanks to Randy Davidson, John Walker and Bryan Doane for contributing to this post.