It’s cherry season in beautiful Washington State! I’ve written before about how much I enjoy the hustle and bustle that comes with each cherry season, and this year is no exception. To me, one of the best kept secrets about sweet cherries is how much care goes into growing, harvesting, and packing each one so that you can enjoy the freshest cherries from your grocery store. In this post, I’m going to show you through pictures our process for getting cherries from our farms to your table.
For growers of sweet cherries, farming is a 365 day-a-year job.There are slow parts to the season (like winter) but the worry never fades, and caring for trees is constant. Springtime is the time when farmer’s get to start making predictions about their upcoming crop, as cherry blossoms appear on trees, bees pollinate flowers, and a cherry begins to grow.
In the weeks and days leading up to harvest, there is a lot of attention on sampling cherries. Visually checking cherries for size, color, and quality – and tasting them too – is the best way to determine the optimal time to harvest. We must choose the timing carefully because cherries are not a fruit that gains sugars off the tree. They can’t store carbohydrates, and therefore, the flavor is what it will be at harvest.
Finally, the day to harvest the cherry tree has come. The crew starts picking as the sun rises in order to get the cherry trees off the tree before the heat of the day sets in. You can read more about why we harvest cherries at sunrise in this post.
Each cherry is hand-picked from the tree! They usually come off the tree in small clusters, which are made into singles once on the packing line. We hand-picked sweet cherries because it’s the best way to avoid bruising, and maintain the fresh-off-the-tree firmness and dessert quality.
Once the picking bag is full, it is weighed and then gently placed into a lug or larger bin. The bin is kept in the shade and covered with a giant sponge that has been soaked in cold water in order to start taking the field heat out of the cherries and keep them cool while they wait to be transported to a nearby hydrocooler.
Hydrocooling is a vital step that helps us ensure cherry quality remains high. That’s because if cherries are not kept cold, they begin to lose firmness and overall quality very quickly. At hydrocooling, cherries are drenched with icy cold water to bring their internal (or pulp) temperature down. We have mobile hydrocoolers that move with harvest in order to cool cherries in no time at all (and hopefully within an hour of harvest).
Next, cherries make their way by refrigerated truck to a receiving location or the nearest packing facility. Samples from each bin are taken for quality checks so that we have a better idea the size, firmness, sugar levels, and overall quality of the fruit that we will soon pack and sell.
Cherries are kept in refrigerated rooms until they are packed. They don’t sit there for long as we strive to pick, pack, and ship cherries within 24-48 hours of harvest.
On the packing line, the bin of cherries is placed on the line and the cherries begin their journey through the line via cold water transport.
The fruit is cut from bunches into singles by a machine called a cluster cutter. It is then electronically sized and sorted by our high-tech equipment. Each cherry gets more than 30 pictures taken in less than a second! The pictures are instantly sent to a computer, where software analyzes it for quality and size, and then the cherry is sorted accordingly. The process is very accurate and allows us to pack cherries with consistent size and qualities.
Next, cherries are sorted a second time, this time manually, before they are packed into their final container (mostly bags and clamshells). This is a mostly automatic process, but helpful hands check the weight of packages and place them into the master carton. The cartons are palletized, and sent to cold rooms to await a final cool down and shipping. Cherries warm up again on the packing line so we use engineered fans and a tunneling process to bring the temperature back down to the optimal 33 degree shipping temperature. The cool down process takes about two hours.
Finally, pallets of cherries are loaded onto refrigerated trucks and headed to their final destination – your grocery store! There are many steps to get sweet cherries from our farms to your table and each one has importance, but the most important part in harvesting, packing, and shipping cherries is that we do it as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to ensure perishable cherries make it to your stores as fresh as possible.
I hope you are enjoying sweet Stemilt cherries right now!