Cherry season is hands down my favorite time of the year. It’s busy, fast-paced, and just like when I was a kid growing up on the orchard, it’s exciting to wake up each day knowing I get to see bins full of sweet cherries make their way from the orchard, onto a packing line, and then off on a truck to their final destination. In this post, I want to share with you the delicate process for harvesting sweet cherries, which I think, is probably not common knowledge, but quite amazing to experience.
Cherry harvest starts in the wee hours of the morning. At my Dad’s orchard on Stemilt Hill, the crew will gather before sunrise to go over the harvest for the day before setting out to pick cherries. An early morning harvest is essential to cherry quality. These delicate fruits despise the heat and picking during the cool part of the day is ideal. Clusters of cherries are picked by hand, stem and all. Workers must be careful while picking this year’s cherries because the buds for next year’s crop are already on the tree.
Freshly picked cherries are gently placed in a picking bag and once that is full, the bag is emptied into a larger bin of cherries. Bins are kept in the shade to avoid direct placement in the sun, and many growers will place a shade cloth (picture a giant wet sponge) over the bin in order to keep cherries as cool as possible.
From there, the bins are transported by tractor out of the orchard and onto mobile hydrocoolers. Hydrocooling is the process of immersing cherries in icy cold water, which brings down the pulp temperature of the fruit and is critical to maintaining fruit freshness and firmness. My ancestors learned the hard way how cherries arrived at the market without hydrocooling, and we’ve been very committed to hydrocooling ever since.
After hydrocooling, cherries are loaded onto refrigerated trucks and then transported to a nearby receiving area or packing facility. The cold chain is the single most important factor in maintaining cherry freshness and quality, and as you’ve read, it starts in the orchard.
I’ll be back on the blog soon to share how cherries are packed. Until then, I hope you are able to enjoy Stemilt cherries with a new understanding of all the care and effort it takes to get them harvested. Just like every other step in the farm to table process for cherries, harvest is fast-paced, stressful, and a lot of hard work by a team of dedicated people. All of those efforts pay off when we see the great reward, which is people like you enjoying Stemilt cherries!