In March, Don Olmstead Jr. (’70 Hort.) watches over his cherry trees night and day, ready to activate a heating system or switch on the wind machines to protect the tender buds from a killing frost. It’s a task he shares with his son and business partner, Don Olmstead III (’98 Hort.).
In April, the Olmsteads worry about pollination, which only works if pollen is on the blossoms and the weather is right for insect activity. Since most cherries can’t self-pollinate, there must be another variety close by and in bloom. To facilitate cross-pollination, the Olmsteads hire one beehive per acre, inviting a few million bees to their ranch for a brief but crucial period. “There’s even a risk of whether the bees can get out when the pollen is on,” says Don III. If it’s too cold, they won’t leave the hive.
Next the pollinated cherries emerge from their husks, growing in a rapid spurt that determines their ultimate size. At that point, the skin is very delicate. “Then I’m worried about a wind storm, which could mark them up,” says Don Jr. “The result is not a bad fruit, but it’s not a perfect fruit.”
As the leaves come out, the orchardists watch for mildew. Unchecked, it could spread from the leaves into the fruit.
When the fruit starts to turn color, the Olmsteads guard against birds, though this is one part of nature they can’t control. “We have tried everything,” says Don III. Fish oils. Scare guns. Ribbon tied to branches. They’ve even tried broadcasting distressed birdcalls from speakers set among the trees. “We’ve kind of come to a point where we say, ‘Well, they’re going to take a certain percent,'” he says. “We just hope they leave us enough.”
The Olmsteads brace for other dangers too. “Cherries have vintage years, just like wine,” says Don Jr. “In the last three years, two of them have been vintage, with one rather poor one in between with a rain storm.” When the cherries are near ripe, rain can cause their skin to rupture, and “the consumer just doesn’t care for split cherries,” he says.
When the short harvest season arrives in June, the family farm grows from six full-time workers to nearly 200. The fruit must be hand picked and the Olmsteads pack much of theirs out in the orchard. “The Rainier is so delicate, even the slightest rubbing shows up,” says Don Jr. So they teach the workers which cherries to pick, to pick them by the stem only, and to gently place the fruit in a bucket. At the packing station they transfer the cherries from the bucket to the packing box, again by touching only the stems.
All this work for such a quick harvest and such a risky crop can still be rewarding, say the Olmsteads. “Every year is a different challenge,” says Don Jr. “My wife and I, we have no interest in Vegas other than the bright lights. We gamble for a living.”
“For us it is a way of life,” says Don III. “The things you worry about in a year, they are a part of you. Once it’s in you, it’s hard to get it out.”
The 2006 cherry season is upon us. For a few weeks in the summer starting in early June, fresh, sweet Washington cherries will color produce stands and grocery stores around the state. The small, round stone fruit comes in a range of varieties and colors, from a delicate yellow to a deep, hearty purple-red. Washington’s sweet cherry farmers dominate the industry, producing more than half of the nation’s crop. The state’s soils and cooler, dryer climate are particularly prime for raising this most risky of tree fruit. Cherry territory spans the middle of the state, from Okanagan County in the north down to Benton in the south.
The Olmsteads, whose farm lies in Yakima County, grow three varieties: the Bing, a firm fruit with a deep red skin; the Van, another red-skinned variety; and their favorite and the most fragile, the Rainier.
The yellow- and pink-skinned Rainier came from Washington State University’s cherry breeding program back in the early 1960s. It was made by crossing a Bing with a Van, and it produces many pollen-laden blossoms. Who would have known that the combination of two dark sweet cherries would result in a “fantastic yellow-fleshed big cherry,” says Matt Whiting, a horticulturist at the WSU Research and Extension Center at Prosser. “That tells you something about cherry breeding. Serendipity is a big part of this.”
The Rainier was bred as a cross-pollinator by Harold Fogle, a USDA breeder who worked at the WSU research station in Prosser. No one knew how good it could be as an eating fruit, until farmer Grady Auvil of Douglas County took note one year, after a major frost severely thinned the Rainiers, that what remained was this massive, beautiful fruit. By the 1970s, the Rainier cherry was a hot commodity, fetching almost twice what people were paying for Bings.
In hopes of creating more successes and finding a way to make cherries easier to harvest and even more appealing to consumers, WSU has reinstituted a cherry breeding program at Prosser. Whiting is now heading the effort.
In choosing cherries for your table, it’s all a matter of taste. For a red cherry, look for colors in the range of dark red to mahogany. “And you want to see a natural shine,” says Whiting.
Hunt for the freshest cherries at your local farmers markets, or, if you have time, find an orchard and fetch them yourself.
Store them in the refrigerator, and they can last for up to two weeks. And enjoy them while they’re in season. It’s all too brief.