Regina cherries are harvested at Don Nusom's orchard at Gervais, Oregon.

Regina cherries are harvested at Don Nusom’s orchard at Gervais, Oregon.

Ever since Oregon Agricultural College horticulture professor Ronald Wiegand developed a better brining process for mara–schino cherries in 1925, the light-skinned Royal Ann has dominated production in the Willamette Valley.

But that’s been changing the last –several years, and for two reasons.

For one, growing Royal Anns in the valley has always been a throw of the dice because rains can disrupt pollination in the spring and then come back in early summer to split maturing fruit before it can be harvested.

The other impediment to growing "briners" in the valley is the lower price growers get for their fruit compared to fresh-market varieties, such as Bing.

Bings, however, have never been a good fit for the soggy valley, because they’re subject to the same rains that ruin Royal Anns, and they’re particularly susceptible to Pseudomonas bacterial canker. So, for decades, –growers stuck with briners.

But that’s no longer the case, thanks to cherry breeders in Canada and Europe who have developed fresh-market varieties that mature later in the season, thus escaping destructive rains.

No Willamette Valley sweet cherry grower has been more involved with these new varieties than Don Nusom of Gervais. For decades, he and his dad, Don, Sr., grew briner cherries that were processed at Oregon Cherry Growers (formerly Willamette Cherry Growers) in Salem.

Then, at the turn of the millennium, after he had taken over farm operations a decade earlier, Don, Jr., literally went out on a limb and began yanking out some of his Royal Anns and replacing them with fresh-market –varieties on various dwarfing rootstocks.

Today, about 50 of Nusom’s 70 sweet cherry acres are planted to fresh-market varieties bred in Europe or Canada. The rest remains Royal Ann with Corum and Bada as pollinizers.

Big difference

Nusom has traveled the world and the West Coast to learn all he can about growing late-season cherries. One thing he’s learned is that there’s a big difference between growing high-density fresh-market varieties and briners. This is especially true when it comes to fertilizer and chemical treatments. Whereas Royal Anns and their pollinizers are very forgiving, applications must be timed perfectly in fresh-market orchards.

While Nusom continues to believe that late-maturing fresh-market varieties have a solid future in the valley, the last two years have hardly been anything to brag about. In 2005, he had a great crop that sized well. The only problem was, many Pacific Northwest cherries marketed at the front end of summer lacked quality and drove –consumers away from cherries for the remainder of the season, Nusom said.

This year, it was a different story. Spring frosts that killed tender buds and opened the door to bacterial canker destroyed some of Nusom’s more susceptible fresh-market varieties.

While he has yet to show a fresh-market profit, Nusom maintains his optimism, though it’s tempered with real concern. He knows that to stay on course with his fresh operation he needs to pull out 15 acres that have not been performing well and replace them with more reliable varieties.

That takes money, and until he can bring in a profitable fresh crop, the funds just aren’t there to do a major make-over in his money-losing blocks.

In the meantime, Nusom eagerly awaits the year when the stars will align, and he can hardly wait for his younger blocks to come into production.

"Actually, long term, the potential of this farm is outstanding," Nusom said. "If I had the funds and could afford [the renovations], in five years this would be a very profitable business."

In the future, the core of Nusom’s fresh-market orchards will be made up of three varieties that have performed well and stood up to bacterial canker: Skeena, Regina, and Kordia (known as Attika in the United States). Skeena is self-fruitful. Regina and Kordia require cross pollination with other varieties and will also pollinate each other.

Most of the other varieties, which he did not want to mention by name, are destined for the burn pile.

"I picked some varieties that didn’t do well. With what I know now, I would never have planted them. But back when I planted them, there wasn’t one variety that anybody knew much about, even university researchers and extension people."

Dying industry

Nusom said he did fare pretty well this year with his Royal Anns, achieving 75 percent of his 2006 crop compared to 30 percent to 40 percent for the remainder of the valley acreage.

While Nusom said he can make money on briners with a return of 54 cents a pound, briners are a dying industry at under 60 cents a pound.

"That’s because nobody replants briners. There haven’t been more than 300 or 400 acres planted in the Willamette Valley in the last three or four years. There’s no incentive."

Nusom said that while a decent profit can usually be made today in established briner orchards, it wouldn’t pay to start a new orchard at a cost of $9,000 to $10,000 an acre and a four- to five-year wait for the first crop.

In his fresh-cherry blocks, Nusom has experimented with various scion/rootstock combinations and also –different training systems.

"There are a whole lot of characteristics, such as growth habit and production traits, that come into play," he said. "And it also depends on how I want to grow my trees, whether I want a modified Vogel central leader, –central spindle, or a KGB bush."

Rootstocks he’s worked with include Weiroot 154 and 158; Gisela 5, 6, and 12; and MxM 14. One of the reasons for the wide variety of rootstocks is that when he decided to go with dwarfing stocks, there weren’t sufficient quantities of any one particular kind to be had. He also wanted to see how different rootstocks worked with the new late-season varieties.

Even though rootstock production has ramped up considerably in the Northwest, there’s a two- to three-year wait for nursery stock since nurseries are only growing trees on contract, he said. "There’s no spec production anymore."

Nusom said that one drawback to growing fresh—market cherries on dwarfing rootstocks is that on some precocious understocks the fruit is small because of overcropping. He can prevent this by aggressive pruning or by taking what he gets and harvesting the smaller fruit for processing.