I often have the privilege of showing visitors around my family’s cherry orchards atop Stemilt Hill. Just like I showed you in this blog post on The Stem, we visit the orchard to see how cherries are harvested (hand-picked!), and the tasks we do after they are harvested to ensure this perishable fruit maintains that fresh-off-the-tree quality we all love. I always enjoy these tours, and any time I get to spend in the orchard, but they do come with a price tag – a 4:45 AM start time!
In this week’s blog post, I thought it would be fun to share with you the importance of harvesting cherries in the early morning hours, and why we’ve been doing just that at Stemilt for over 50 years.
In the year 1958, my grandfather, Tom Mathison, received a mere $88 for his 100 ton cherry crop. An amount that simply would not sustain his family let alone the farm. My grandmother gave him an ultimatum: “Either figure out what’s wrong and fix it, or go get a job to support this family!” The next year, Grandpa followed the railcar from Washington to New York to see how his cherries appeared at market. It was there that he figured out what was wrong. His fruit looked great – firm and full of luster – when it left his farm, but did not fare well during the journey. The cherries were soft, the stems were dry, and there was little shine left in them.
Grandpa headed home determined to fix his cherry business. He visited cherry operations in California and learned that cherry harvest there was drastically different than the methods used in Washington. They harvested cherries in the early morning hours and then immediately hydrocooled them in order to maintain freshness. In Washington, our family would milk the cows in the morning and harvest cherries in the afternoon, and take them to town after dinner, with no hydrocooling involved. It was obvious to Grandpa that the cherries fared much better when harvested under cool temperatures and if they were kept cool throughout their journey from farm to market.
In 1960, Grandpa Tom changed his harvest practices and constructed a small packing facility so that he could have more control over the quality of his fruit that went to market. One of the key changes he made was to harvest cherries first thing in the morning in order to end the day long before hot summer temperatures arrived.
Though this wasn’t the only change Grandpa instilled (hydrocooling was another), it did make a big difference in the arrival and performance of his fruit at the market. He followed the railcar with his cherries to market again and the outcome was a complete turnaround from his previous visit. The cherries were firm, flavorful, and shined like rubies!
If you were to visit a cherry orchard to see harvest today, you’d have to get an early start. A line of car lights appear over the early morning sky as crews gather to discuss harvest plans for the day. Buckets, scales, bins, and tractors are in the orchard, ready to be used and loaded with freshly picked cherries. And there is a great deal of excitement in the air, because it’s another day that we get to spend doing what we love, harvesting and delivering world famous cherries for you to enjoy.