The Cherry Journey

Adventure through Stemilt’s cherry season to find out how cherries get from our farms to your stores in no time at all. Stemilt cherries are harvested fresh daily from May through early September from the best orchards in California and Washington State. Learn how World-Famous Cherries are grown, packed and shipped.

Where We Farm World-Famous Cherries

Farm to Fork Cherries Cherry Map

Stemilt’s World-Famous cherries come from world-famous locations. From southern California to high-altitude orchards in Washington State, our geographic diversity allows us to deliver fresh sweet cherries to grocery stores continuously from May through early September:

  1. South District, California: The first Stemilt sweet cherries of the season come from this large, flat valley in southern California that includes places like Arvin, Bakersfield and Shafter. We harvest early varieties like Brooks, Tulare and Rainiers here from May 1-25.
  2. Mid-District, California: California cherry harvest continues in the middle part of the state from May 21-June 5. We harvest varieties like Coral, Garnet, Rainiers and Bing from orchards located from Gustine to Patterson.
  3. Late District, California: This northern California growing district produces high-quality Bings, Corals and Rainiers. Harvest in Modesto, Brentwood, Stockton, River Delta and Yuba City runs from May 17-June 12, wrapping up the California cherry season.
  4. Mid-Columbia, Washington: This large district runs from Pasco to Quincy, and dominates harvest from early June to mid-July. Red varieties include Bing, Sweetheart, Sequoia and Skeena, while yellow cherries include Rainier and Skylar Rae® brand cherries.
  5. Okanogan, Washington: Located in the northern part of central Washington, this widespread district is known for producing high-quality Bing and Sweetheart cherries at the end of July.
  6. Stemilt Hill, Washington: Famous for its volcanic soils and gradual elevation changes, Stemilt Hill is the essence of Stemilt’s cherry program. Hill harvest runs from mid-July to mid-August, with varieties like Bing, Sweetheart, Skeena and Staccato®. Many of our Kyle’s Pick cherries come from this locale.
  7. The Amigos, Washington: This unique operation gives Stemilt the latest cherries in the state, at 3,200-plus feet above sea level. Sweetheart, Skeena, Staccato® and new test varieties dominate this location, which harvests the entire month of August and into September. The majority of our Half Mile Closer to the Moon cherries are grown and harvested at Amigos.

 

How Latitude and Elevation Play a Role in Cherry Harvest

Both latitude and elevation help Stemilt harvest cherries continuously from May through early September. Here’s why:

  • Latitude dictates the time of year harvest will occur. Cherries come off the tree in California before they do in Washington State, because California is located closer to the equator. Warm temperatures arrive in California first, which means cherry bloom and cherry harvest do too.
  • Latitude is also important within a state. Cherry harvest moves from south to north in both California and Washington.
  • At the same time, elevation, or altitude, help dictate cherry harvest.
  • Cherries are harvested within 60 to 80 days after bloom, depending on the variety. Orchards located at high elevations bloom (and harvest) later than those at lower elevations.
  • Harvest is pushed back one day for every 100-foot increase in vertical elevation.
  • Stemilt starts cherry harvest in Washington State at orchards that are 700 feet above sea level, and concludes harvest at orchards located 3,500 feet above sea level.

 

Planting a Cherry Orchard

Farm to Fork Cherries Planting

  • Cherries grow best in arid environments like those found in central Washington. Here, warm summer days and cool nights help produce large cherries with firmness and high sugars.
  • Sandy-loam soils with slight acidity to keep micronutrients available is the best soil for cherries to grow in.
  • Select the right orchard locations for slope to the sunshine, good air drainage with no frost pockets, and low pest pressures.
  • Growers must also select the right cherry varieties and rootstock to grow in their location.
  • Pollinator trees are needed in cherry orchards to assure a crop will be pollinated successfully.
  • A season-long water source needs to be part of the plan to establish the irrigation system that will be the lifeline to the orchard. Sprinklers are usually high impact, drip or emitters.

 

How Cherry Orchards Are Cared for Through the Seasons

Spring

  • Cherry bloom takes place in both California and Washington.
  • During bloom, the orchard is monitored for cold, which can result in a loss of potential crop. We run windmills to push the cold air from the bottom of the orchards away from the trees and blossoms. We will also run sprinklers that cause water to freeze to ice. As it melts, it gives off energy in the form of heat.
  • Beehives are placed throughout the orchards to promote pollination.
  • The fruit officially sets on the tree and begins to grow.
  • In the late spring, California cherries are ready for harvest.

Summer

  • Harvest is the main activity in Washington cherry orchards during the summer months.
  • Cherry growers monitor the weather, water trees and prepare for harvest daily
  • Trees are fed with nutrients to fuel cherry growth and quality. This may come from compost.
  • With California harvest already complete, growers there will prune cherry trees.

Fall

  • Cherry trees begin to rest and recover from harvest. They shed their leaves and enter a resting state once temperatures drop.
  • Compost is applied in late fall right before the leaf drop.

Winter

  • Orchards go dormant and will rest, which is important for fruit growth and quality the following season.
  • Growers keep track of cool temperatures to assure adequate chill hours for cherries
  • This is the time that extensive pruning gets the tree staged for spring again.
  • Compost sits under the snow and begins to mix with the soils and prepare to feed the spring growth.

Cherry Bloom: The Start of a Delicious Season

Farm to Fork Cherries Bloom

  • With cherry orchards in California and Washington, cherry bloom time happens twice at Stemilt. California starts in early March, while mid-April is when Washington cherry trees blossom.
  • The development of the blossoms for the new cherry crop actually takes place during cherry harvest the previous season, where short bud spurs are already on branches of the tree.
  • In the spring as the weather begins to warm, the buds are the first visible part of the tree to start to change.
  • Within each state, cherry blossom starts in southern growing districts and gradually moves north. Each variety also has a specific bloom time, with early varieties blooming before mid- and late-season varieties.

 

Protecting Cherry Blossoms from Springtime Weather

Cherry blossom is an important time in the orchard, and spring weather and frost is dangerous for blossoms. The following is how our growers protect bloom in an orchard:

Orchard Heaters:

  • For more than a century, propane, natural gas, kerosene or oil heaters have all been used to protect orchards.
  • The cost of fuel makes this a pricey way to defend an orchard.
  • These are rarely used in Washington orchards nowadays, with the exception of early crops like apricots and early cherry locations.

Wind Machines:

  • Frost protection often comes from wind machines that have blades spinning above the orchard.
  • The movement of air by the fan blades prevents stagnant cold air pockets from settling at the tree level and killing the blossoms, which bear the crop.
  • A single wind machine can protect up to 10 acres of orchards.
  • The fan is typically powered by an industrial engine delivering 100 horsepower or more.

Sprinkler Irrigation:

  • Overhead irrigation is another common method of frost/freeze protection.
  • Heat is released as water changes to ice, which keeps the orchards warmer than freezing. If supplied at an adequate rate, the water will keep the temperature of the plant at or near 32° F.
  • Advantages of overhead irrigation include: lower operating cost, convenience of operation, and multiple uses including drought prevention and heat suppression in the warmer months.

 

Cherry Blossoms and Pollination with Bees

  • Bees are essential in growing new cherries, as they pollinate the blossoms on cherry trees each spring. Growers set out beehives when flowers just start to open. The hives are usually rented and kept on location for 4-5 days.
  • Bees prefer to forage within 300 feet of their hive, so there are usually 1-2 beehives per acre of cherry orchards during bloom. In addition to bees, growers need pollinizer trees, like Rainier cherry trees, to help set the crop (though there are a few self-fertile cherry varieties). Bees quickly work to transfer pollen from the anthers of a flower to the stigma of the same or other flowers to set or pollenize cherries blossoms.
  • After pollination set occurs, a new cherry develops and begins to grow.
  • Cold, wet or windy weather can cause poor pollination and eventually reduce the expected apple crop in an orchard. On average, it takes 60 to 80 days for cherries to go from bloom to harvest.

When Cherry Harvest Happens at Stemilt

Farm to Fork Cherry Harvest

  • Cherry harvest happens daily at Stemilt beginning in late April and lasting throughout August.
  • Our California cherries are first to harvest because of their southern latitude. We harvest California cherries from late April to early or mid-June.
  • Washington cherry harvest begins in early June in the south central part of the state, moving north and eventually to high elevations as the season progresses.
  • Harvest timing for cherries is based on latitude, altitude and variety. Southern latitudes pick before northern latitudes. Higher altitudes harvest later than lower altitudes. Late-ripening varieties allow the season to extend in many locations as well.

 

How Cherries Are Harvested

  • Every Stemilt sweet cherry is hand-picked from the tree.
  • To harvest cherries, a crew member gently twists and pulls the stem of the cherry, being careful not to damage the spur that will produce next year’s fruit.
  • Cherries are hand-picked in clusters, which allows an experienced worker to pick over 100 pounds of cherries per hour!
  • Dark-sweet cherries are picked into picking bags or lugs and then transferred carefully into harvest bins.
  • Rainier cherries and Skylar Rae® brand cherries are picked right into plastic field lugs to limit handling. These lugs are placed right into the harvest bin and pin-wheeled on top of each other to prevent bruising. Later on, the lugs are gently dumped onto the packing line.
  • Read Tate Mathison’s blog post to get a closer look at cherry harvest.

 

Early-Morning Harvest

  • In the 1960s, Stemilt founder Tom Mathison realized that the best time to harvest cherries was in the early-morning hours during cooler temperatures when the fruit was firm and had full luster.
  • Fruit in the heat of the day is softer and more susceptible to bruising and decay if picked. The tree is busy pulling water away from the fruit to support itself during the heat.
  • Today, crews start harvesting Stemilt cherries at sunrise each day to guarantee the best product is picked. This is also the most comfortable time of day for our hard-working crews to do their job.
  • Research backs up Stemilt’s early-morning harvest method. Researchers at UC Davis found that cherries harvested before 8 a.m. retain firmness significantly longer than cherries harvested later in the day.
  • Take a look at this vlog to see cherry harvest in action.

 

Immediate Hydrocooling Once Cherries Are Harvested

Farm to Fork Cherries Hydrocooling

  • Cherries are a highly perishable fruit that need a tight cold chain to maintain freshness, quality and flavor.
  • Within an hour after they are picked, Stemilt cherries are transported to a nearby hydrocooling station to cool the fruit.
  • Hydrocooling stations drench 32-degree water over bins of cherries to pull the heat from the meat and pit of the fruit. In just a few minutes, hydrocooling can bring the fruit’s pulp temperature from 70 to 80 ° down to the 45 ° range.
  • These mobile hydrocooler stations are placed throughout our growing regions. Cherries travel less than 30 minutes to reach one of Stemilt’s mobile hydrocooling locations.
  • Growers use protective pads that have been soaked in cold water to cover bins of hydrocooled cherries while they travel to a nearby Stemilt packing facility. This is another step that keeps heat off the fruit.
  • Once they arrive at Stemilt, cherries are hydrocooled a second time to remove any remaining field heat.
  • The cherries are either packed immediately or kept in cold storage for packing in the next 24 hours.

How Stemilt Cherries Are Packed

Farm to Fork Cherries Cherry Packing

Stemilt cherries come off the tree looking and tasting perfect, but they still have some distance to travel before making it to your stores and home. Here’s how we pack cherries:

  • Unlike apples and pears, cherries do not contain stored carbohydrates and must be kept cold to maintain firmness, sugars and overall quality.
  • From the farm to your stores, our goal is to keep cherries in a tight cold chain (and move quickly).
  • Throughout the packing process, cherries are checked by quality control experts to ensure only the best fruit is packed.

Step 1: Hydrocooling Cherries

  • Cherries are hydrocooled an hour after harvest, and again when they arrive at our packing facilities.
  • Hydrocooling brings down the pulp temperature of cherries by drenching the fruit in 32 ° F water for several minutes.
  • Hydrocooling starts the critical cold chain process for cherries.

Step 2: Cherry Bin Dump

  • The first step in packing cherries is to “dump” the cherries on the packing line. The dumping process is actually quite gentle so the fruit is not damaged.
  • Water assists this process, which further protects cherries from bruising.
  • Leaves from the orchard that made it into the bin of cherries are fished out of the water with nets.
  • Each bin is ticketed into our inventory system to be tracked throughout packing and shipment. The ticket has information about the grower, harvest date, variety, etc., and is our way of accounting for the fruit.

Step 3: Cluster-Cutting Cherries

  • After they are dumped, cherries make their way to the cluster cutter. Throughout the packing process, they are transported by cold water flumes. Padding is used on drop and impact points to gently handle the fruit.
  • A machine called a cluster cutter automatically slices the stem of bunches of cherries into singles. This removes any remaining leaves, shortens stems, and allows for much easier sizing, sorting and packing of the fruit.

Step 4: Cherry Sizing and Sorting

  • Stemilt uses the latest technology to electronically size and sort cherries for defects.
  • Each cherry passes through a machine where it is automatically sized (by row size) and sorted for quality. The machine takes multiple images of the cherry in less than a second and relays the information to a computer. The computer software analyzes the image information and automatically sorts and sizes each cherry based on criteria we’ve set up. What are “row-size” cherries? Row is the industry measurement used when sizing cherries. This term dates back to when cherry shippers packed the top layer of a box of cherries in neat rows. The number of cherries that fit in each row determined the size the cherries. For instance, if 10 cherries fit in a row, those cherries would be called 10 row. Cherries continue to be classified in row sizes today. However, they are no longer placed in rows, but rather automatically sized during packing. As a guide, the smaller the row number, the larger the cherry will be.
  • Cherries that have been kicked for defects are sorted by hand a second time to determine if the fruit is packable or a cull.

Step 5: Cherries Are Packed

  • Now that they’ve been sized and sorted, cherries are ready to be packed.
  • Stemilt packs cherries bulk and in bags and clamshells. A master carton contains bags and clamshells and is stamped with product information like variety, grower and pack date for traceability.
  • Packing cherries is done by a combination of manual work and automation.
  • Cartons are stacked on pallets, shrink wrapped and ticketed before they are sent to tunnel rooms.

 

Temperature Pull-Down Rooms

  • Pallets of cherries are transported to nearby refrigerated cold rooms, kept at 25 ° F for a final cool-down process known as tunneling.
  • The pallets are placed in neat rows, with a large, high-velocity fan on one end that’s specially engineered to rapidly cool cherries.
  • Once in line, a tarp is placed over the top of the pallets and the room is closed
  • Fans suck cool air through each box of cherries, which uniformly cools cherries and removes any remaining heat from the fruit.
  • Our goal is to get cherries down to 34 ° F before shipment, as that is the optimal temperature for maintaining cherry freshness.

 

Refrigerated Throughout Delivery

  • Once tunneling is complete, cherries are taken from the cold room and loaded onto refrigerated trucks to be taken to their retail destination.
  • A temperature recorder is placed on the truck to record and monitor the fruit’s temperature throughout transport.
  • The perishable nature of cherries means the entire farm to truck process happens quickly. Stemilt cherries typically ship within 24-48 hours of harvest.