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 Orondo Ruby (on the right) is thought to be a mutation of Rainier (on the left). Orondo Ruby blooms later than Rainier, but matures three to five days earlier.

Orondo Ruby (on the right) is thought to be a mutation of Rainier (on the left). Orondo Ruby blooms later than Rainier, but matures three to five days earlier.

Orondo Ruby will be grown and packed by a single company and sold by one marketer to a sole retailer initially.

The owners of a new cherry variety called Orondo Ruby are positioning it as a unique type of cherry—neither black nor yellow—that will stand out in an increasingly competitive cherry market. The cherry is thought to be a highly colored mutation of Rainier.

Marcus Griggs, a cherry grower and partner at Orondo Fruit Company in Orondo, Washington, discovered the cherry in his orchard about five years ago. He noticed that one tree in a young Rainier block had fruit that was distinctly different. The cherries were totally blushed and had matured earlier than the fruit on neighboring trees.

Thinking it too good to be true, Griggs asked Ken Adams, president of Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, Washington, to take a look. Adams told the Good Fruit Grower that when he saw and tasted the cherry he was impressed with its quality. In his opinion it is better colored and better tasting than Rainier, and it might show bruising less because of the deep blush.

Griggs continued to observe the tree for the next couple of years to be sure it was different from the rest in the block. Meanwhile, he had new trees propagated with wood from the tree, partly to prove for patenting purposes that fruit from the second generation was the same, but also to expand his plantings in case the cherry proved to be something special.

Adams helped Griggs obtain a patent, which was issued a year ago. The cultivar name is MG200. Orondo Ruby, the trademark, was selected because of the reputation of the Orondo area for quality fruit and the pinkish red color of the cherry.

New company

To commercialize the variety, Griggs formed a new company with his brother-in-law Bart Clennon, who is also a grower and a partner in Orondo Fruit Company.

Also involved in the new company, which is called Griggs and Clennon Farms, are Griggs’s children Charlotte, Marc, and John, and Clennon’s children Cameron and Cory, along with Joel Reed, Clennon’s orchard manager.

Griggs, who has 40 years’ experience as an orchardist, brings his growing expertise to the new company. He started heavily planting the Rainier cherry in high-density systems during the 1980s. Rainier accounts for 90 percent of his plantings today, and he grows red varieties only as pollinizers. Until he discovered Orondo Ruby, Rainier was the only cherry that Orondo Fruit Company packed.

Clennon, a former actuary, crunches the numbers and analyzes the risks. He said they seriously considered turning the new variety over to a nursery and making it widely available, but Griggs was concerned about how they would maintain the quality of the product. They were afraid it could become a commodity and decided, instead, to keep the variety for themselves. It will not be sold by any nursery. Griggs said keeping the variety within the family and packing all the fruit in one place will ensure consistency from pack to pack.

They now have 30,000 trees in the ground and plan to plant as many Orondo Rubies in the Orondo and Wenatchee areas as they are able to pick, pack, and sell. In about two years’ time they will expand into earlier and later maturing districts to lengthen the season and spread the risk. They’ve been looking at land in California and are considering planting in Canada and Chile.

Not apples

Clennon said such an exclusive club would not work for a new apple variety because much greater volumes of fruit would be needed.

"If you start with an apple variety and want to have a significant part of the market, you have to plant thousands of acres," Clennon said. In contrast, a 50-acre block of cherries can produce 500 tons of cherries, which he feels is a marketable quantity.

Last season, they harvested fewer than 500 boxes of the cherry, which did not yet have a name. Some were sold at QFC Stores in Seattle as "Estate Reserve sweet cherries," but most were used for test marketing, which was conducted by The Perishables Group and Domex Superfresh in Yakima, Washington, which is their marketer.

"We got a hugely positive response," Clennon said. Most of the 18 key retailers surveyed wanted to know where they could get more.

Clennon said the variety contains 15 to 20 percent more sugar than a Rainier, but also has a higher acid level, which gives it a different flavor. They are sponsoring research to confirm its quality attributes.

Griggs sees potential for positioning Orondo Ruby as a third type of sweet cherry—not a red/black, nor a yellow, but a pinkish red one—and thinks this could be a marketing advantage as cherry production increases. They plan to sell the fruit for a premium over Rainier.

This season, they expect to have 5,000 boxes, and within three years they should have 80,000 boxes, mostly from trees already planted. They’re planning to expand and upgrade their cherry packing lines at Orondo Fruit to handle the new variety, and hope to get export markets interested in it.