Mark Hanrahan checks young Early Robin trees in his Buena, Washington, orchard, in early June. The variety has a tendency to set light crops.

Mark Hanrahan checks young Early Robin trees in his Buena, Washington, orchard, in early June. The variety has a tendency to set light crops.

Photo Courtesy of Willow Drive Nursery

Early Robin looks set to become an important variety in the Pacific Northwest, as growers try to get a jump on the blushed-cherry deal.

The Rainier cherry now makes up about 10 percent of the Northwest cherry crop. Early Robin is a blush cherry that looks similar to Rainier but ripens one to two weeks earlier. It is being marketed as an early Rainier-type cherry.

“Anecdotally, it appears people are planting the snot out of it,” said Zillah, Washington, orchardist Mark Hanrahan, who planted his first Early Robins six years ago and put more in this spring as part of his ongoing orchard update.

Until lately, growers could get twice the return for Rainiers that they could for dark, sweet cherries. That’s helped fuel more plantings, but there’s a danger of having a glut of Rainiers that all hit the market at the same time, Hanrahan said.

“That’s why Early Robin is going to be so important to us as an industry, because it’s seven days before Rainier,” Hanrahan said. “That’s why people are planting agressively with Early Robins. Early Robin is going to become an extremely important variety in this industry. There’s such a consumer pull for them.”

Mild flavor

The variety was discovered in about 1990 by Robin Doty, who noticed that fruit on one tree in his Rainier cherry orchard at Mattawa, Washington, matured seven to ten days earlier than other trees in the block. The fruit was large, firm, and sweet, and had a heart-shaped appearance, a mild flavor, and a semifreestone pit, unlike typical Rainier cherries.

Doty contacted several nurseries. Some said they thought it was unlikely to compete with Rainier, but John Renick at Columbia Basin Nursery in Quincy, Washington, was enthused about the new cherry and helped him develop it as a variety and get it patented in 2003. Columbia Basin Nursery in Quincy and Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, Washington, share the master license for the variety.

Doty named it Early Robin, not just because of his own name, but because robins in the orchard were always attracted to that tree, as it had fruit earlier than the rest of the Rainier trees.

“They loved to eat that one,” he recalled. “It was the only thing ripe at that time.”

Strong demand

A Washington tree fruit survey in 2010 showed there were just 199 acres of Early Robin in the state, compared with 4,000 acres of Rainier, but nurseries have been seeing strong demand for Early Robin and are taking orders for 2014.

“We’ve been growing it in good volume,” said Neal Manly, chief ­marketing officer at Willow Drive Nursery. “Compared to Rainier, we’re growing over double the number of Early Robin right now.”

The variety has been available for nine years, but Manly thinks growers are now taking another look at it as a way to spread out their marketing window. “It’s a good piece of fruit and colors nicely,” he said. “There’s some real positive benefits about it.”

Doty said it gives packers a white-fleshed cherry to ship along with their early red varieties.

B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, said one of the most important benefits is that it helps secure shelf space for blush cherries earlier in the season.

“I really believe in the last two years we’ve had a smoother road to sell our Rainiers,” he said.

Demand for blush cherries has been strengthening, but it’s helped to have the Early Robins so producers are not all of a sudden bringing in Rainiers in late June and asking retailers for more shelf space, he said.

“If growers are really letting it hang and getting fruit size, it’s really a nice cherry,” he said. “We’ve had some great feedback.”

Thurlby thinks there’s still room for growth in the blush cherry category.

“The challenge is getting people to try it,” he said. “At $4.99 a pound, which is the average retail price, it’s a little bit of a scary proposition for someone who hasn’t tried one.”

However, once people try them, many people prefer blushed cherries, and some prefer the milder flavor of Early Robin to the more acidic Rainier.

However, Thurlby said growth of the blush cherry category is likely to lead to a decline in the premium they’re currently commanding. The challenge will be to maintain prices at a level that compensates growers for the additional costs involved in growing and harvesting blushed varieties.

“We haven’t seen a lot of that yet,” he added. “We’re still seeing retails at close to $5 a pound, and it still seems to be moving the crop.”

Fruit set

Hanrahan said the one problem he’s encountered with Early Robin is poor fruit set. It blooms profusely, but a low ­percentage of the blooms set, he reports.

“I don’t know whether it’s a question of getting the right pollinator for it. It’s such an early bloomer that it doesn’t match up with some of the later varieties.”

He noted, however, that when the crop is light, Early Robin tends to mature earlier and the fruit is larger.

According to the patent application, Early Robin trees have fewer flowers per bud and fewer buds per spur than Rainier. Doty said Early Robin tends to set a good crop of large fruit without the need for thinning. Also, because it doesn’t overset, the fruit tends to ripen uniformly with good size and high sugar levels even in the interior of the tree.

Brandon Lewis at Columbia Basin Nursery said that in some sites, Early Robin can be a very early cherry, maturing only slightly later than Chelan. “For the right growers at the right site doing the right things, it can be that early,” he said.

He has seen full crops of Early Robin, but has never seen it overset, and agrees it’s important to have the right pollenizer. Rainier would work if the grower wanted an entire block of blush cherries, he said. Otherwise, Chelan and Bing would be suitable, as Early Robin blooms a little ahead of Bing. It might be advisable to have two or three pollenizers to be on the safe side, he added.

Lewis said Early Robin is not for every grower, as it requires an early, frost-free site without wind to avoid scuffing. “And that makes it not conducive to growing just anywhere in the state, so that’s going to limit it,” he said.