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The blushed-yellow Rainier cherry was released by Washington State University more than 50 years ago with little thought of it becoming a premium fresh-market cherry.

Rainier originated from a cross of Bing and Van made at WSU in Prosser by soft fruit breeder Dr. Harold Fogle. It was selected in 1954 and released in 1960. The fruit has a similar shape to Bing, but it is generally sweeter and larger, and the skin is yellow with an attractive red blush. However, it is extremely prone to bruising.

Grady Auvil, orchardist at Orondo, Washington, planted some of the first Rainier  trees as pollinizers for his Bing cherries and found that they helped boost the yields. Most of the Rainier cherries were left to fall to the ground, though Auvil enjoyed snacking on them while working in the orchard. In 1975, after noticing that his family and colleagues also enjoyed the Rainiers, he tried selling them on the fresh market and soon had customers clamoring for more, even at twice the price of his Bings.

“It’s a matter of limiting who gets them,” he said in an interview in 1987. “Once people have tasted a Rainier, they don’t want any other cherry.”’

But it’s a cherry that has to be pampered to get it to market without bruising. At first, Auvil field packed the Rainiers until his engineer Walt Hough devised a special sorting and packing line.

Canning

In Washington’s lower Yakima Valley, a couple of other growers had taken an early interest in Rainier as a canning cherry. Richard Ormiston of Prosser planted a block in the 1960s, and Don Olmstead of Grandview planted five acres in 1972 to replace a block of the yellow Royal Ann cherries that had been wiped out by a freeze. Olmstead wanted to try the locally developed Rainier, which he had heard produced larger fruit and yielded better than the Royal Ann. Rainier trees come into bearing early and are very productive.

Don Olmstead, Jr., who joined the family orchard just after the Rainiers were planted, said he and his father sold the fruit for canning through the Snokist cooperative in Yakima. But, in 1984, the state produced a large cherry crop, and Snokist managers told the growers they only needed about a third of the available cherries for canning. Olmstead, who had just joined the Snokist board and had heard that Grady Auvil was successfully selling fresh Rainiers, suggested the growers send a third of their Rainiers to briners, a third to the fresh market, and the other third to the cannery.

Snokist put together promotional material for the fresh market that showed a picture of Mount Rainier, which the cherry is named after, and touted the quality of the cherries and their exceptional size (one-inch minimum ­diameter).

Since then, Olmstead has sold most of his Rainier cherries fresh, and now has 50 acres, which is half his total cherry acreage. For many years, he packed the fruit in the orchard. For a while, he tried sending the Rainiers to warehouses for packing, but he’s now packing them himself again to ensure high quality.

The care that’s given to them between the tree and the package is the most important factor in delivering quality Rainiers, he says.

Dr. Ed Proebsting, in a history of accomplishments at the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, stated that Rainier fills an important, economically high-end niche for growers in Washington, California, Oregon, and around the world. Cherry growers like Auvil made a market for Rainier by developing special harvesting and handling methods to deliver high-quality fruit in good condition.

“They proved that people are willing to pay high prices for superb fruit,” he wrote. “Had these steps not been taken to market Rainier as a fresh product, it would undoubtedly have existed merely as an alternate to Royal Ann in the low-value briner market.”

Olmstead said consumers appreciate the cherry’s flavor, with its high sugar and low acid, as well as its distinctive appearance, but it’s not yet a major variety. Though production has been increasing, Rainier still only accounts for 10 percent of Washington’s cherry production.

“We’re still introducing them after 50 years,” he said.