The Specialty Crop Research Initiative has awarded a $3.9-million grant for research on new ways of producing, processing, and marketing sweet cherries. Dr. Matt Whiting, horticulturist with Washington State University, heads the project, which involves 11 cooperators in Washington, Oregon, California, and Michigan. The ­project’s goal is to improve the sustainability of the

U.S. cherry industry by developing a highly efficient ­production, processing, and marketing system.

Whiting believes that the greatest threat to the sweet cherry industry is its dependence on hand labor for ­harvest, which accounts for about 60 percent of annual production costs.

A major focus of the project will be to develop mechanical harvesting or mechanically assisted harvesting systems. Researchers will build upon the mechanical cherry harvester developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Kearneysville, West Virginia, and add new technology, such as yield mapping.

Picker Technologies, LLC, in Washington State, which has developed a new system for harvesting apples, will work on adapting the same technology to cherries. The USDA machine harvests cherries without stems, but the Picker Technologies system should allow harvest of fruit with or without stems and be compatible with various tree-training systems. Whiting said existing harvesting technologies might be modified and combined in hybrid systems. He thinks it unlikely that there will be a single harvest machine that fits all orchards, so multiple ­solutions will be developed.

The four-year project also includes research on:

• Genetics and genomics, with the goal of developing cultivars that separate easily from their stems and are amenable to mechanical harvesting

• Efficient fruiting-wall orchard systems. Grower-collaborators will plant demonstration blocks of Whiting’s Upright Fruiting Offshoots system.

• Consumer packaging to extend the shelf life and enhance the appeal of the fruit

The project will analyze the economics and profitability of new production systems and assess consumer demand for stem-free mechanically harvested cherries.

Cooperating in the project are: Dr. Qin Zhang, WSU biological systems engineer; Dr. Amit Dhingra, WSU genomicist; Dr. Nnadozie Oraguzie, WSU stone fruit breeder; Dr. Eva Almenar, Michigan State University food scientist and packaging specialist; Dr. Janice Harte, MSU food quality specialist; Dr. Francis Pierce, director of WSU’s Center for Precision Agriculture Systems; Dr. Carolyn Ross, WSU sensory scientist; Clark Seavert, Oregon State University agricultural economist; Lynn Long, OSU Extension educator; Joe Grant, University of California farm advisor; and Randy Allard, Picker Technologies.