Rainiers in a tunnel.
I’m delighted to kick off the annual cherry issue of Good Fruit Grower, though the pathological procrastinator in me has left writing this article to its deadline’s eve. Doesn’t matter, I have yet to find myself short of inspiration when it comes to the art and science of the sweet cherry industry, speculating where the industry is going, and considering what limitations we may face along the way.
As you read through this May 15 issue, you will be (re)introduced to the novelty, dynamism, and compelling romanticism of the sweet cherry industry—characteristics that hooked me ten years ago.
The industry is enjoying strong demand for its product, prices are good, and we are growing better quality fruit every year. In short, times are good. But let me assure you also that at this relatively infant stage, the sweet cherry industry is fraught with as much challenge as potential.
Barring significant crop failure, record yields will become an annual occurrence for the Pacific Northwest—this for a crop that is likely the most labor-intensive among temperate tree fruit. The concomitant expansion of a labor-intensive industry and shrinking of the skilled labor pool will necessitate wholesale changes in production systems.
In addition, it is clear that this agrarian cultural revolution must take place with giant leaps forward rather than via incremental improvements in efficiency of inputs (e.g., labor, water, light, carbon). Oh yeah, these changes must also occur while we continue to produce premium cherries. And don’t forget about intensifying competition from other countries that are planting cherries faster than we are. So, how does an industry stay ahead of the competition? Through investment in research and development, of course (self-serving, I know, but nonetheless true). The challenges for research are to anticipate, collaborate, generate, and motivate.
Consider first what changes are needed to renovate standard (e.g., Bing/Mazzard, fewer than 250 trees/acre, multiple-leader, open-center architecture) production systems.
Think also about your plans for renovation and how aggressive you can afford to be. New scion and rootstock genotypes and planting/ training systems will be critical. (It amazes me that one can still buy a Bing/Mazzard tree.)
New systems must provide precocious and consistent yields of superlative fruit within a compact architecture. Labor efficiency is crucial, but tree architecture must also be methodical and amenable to the adoption of mechanization/ automation. The artistry and interpretation needed to manage a complex multiple-leader architecture must be eliminated. Compact, single-plane fruiting walls will facilitate systematic and precise canopy management and optimize input efficiency.
I am enthusiastic about recent orchard systems innovations I have observed across the region but concerned that they aren’t enough. Again, I believe the industry needs to modernize aggressively—this means adopting potentially dramatic changes in systems and utilizing the best genetics possible, not simply increasing planting density incrementally. Risk is inherent. It can be minimized, however, through regional collaboration. Let’s keep learning from the 36,000 acres of "research" orchards that are throughout Washington State.
Of course, the most efficient orchard systems in the world will be worthless if we do not also produce a premium quality fruit. Much is made about producing "target" fruit, but what is the target we shoot for? The target is surely profitability, and, therefore, minimizing cullage and optimizing yield and size relationships.
For the sweet cherry industry then, fruit diameter is critical. Indeed, packing and sorting facilities have the technology to rapidly and reliably separate fruit by subtle variation in size. However, this should not mean that that is how we determine fruit quality (though research shows that, everything else being equal, consumers do tend to prefer larger fruit, to a point).
Intuition tells us that a smaller fruit with terrific eating quality is preferable to a larger one lacking key flavor attributes, and this intuition is supported overwhelmingly with consumer preference data. Therefore, better defining quality using consumers’ palates is of paramount importance to the future success of the sweet cherry industry and where we can stand out as an industry.
The concept is simple enough—find out what people enjoy in a cherry, breed new cultivars with high consumer appeal, and develop systems that maximize the genetic potential of those fruit efficiently and consistently. It takes too much effort to grow a cherry that ends up disappointing a consumer. Anyone responsible for frost protection this spring would agree.
At this stage, we are limited by sorting technology—new developments are needed to enable high throughput segregation of fruit based on important flavor attributes (such as sweetness, acidity, firmness). Elimination of consumer confusion at retail would follow—fruit could be packaged and marketed by flavor characteristics instead of "dark sweet" (which may be a Chelan, Tieton, Sonata, Van, or Lapins, depending on the season).
I remain enthusiastic about the sweet cherry industry and know that with collaboration and communication, this industry will continue to set the standard for quality. As the great Canadian icon Red Green says, "I’m pulling for you—we’re all in this together."