There are more than 1,000 varieties of cherries in the US but only about 20 are produced commercially.
In an age when we can find produce like apples, oranges, and tomatoes at the grocery store any time of year, I relish the fact that cherries remain a seasonal item. Every year between June and August, I've seen shoppers lunge for bags of the fleeting fruits and stock up on enough sweet cherries to make a dozen pies. As I recently learned, things can get pretty fast and furious at the other end of the chain, too, as cherry growers and packers endure sleepless nights and make lively gambles in an effort to provide us with these luscious summer fruits.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Washington state cherry producers with Northwest Cherries and a group of other writers. In addition to sampling several different cherry varieties (my favorite being an unnamed Rainier variety called "80-11-3") and preparations (see Roasted Asparagus and Cherry Tacos), we visited a cherry grower and packer in the Yakima Valley about a three-hour drive from Seattle. There, I learned just how quick and labor-intensive the cherry season is from the perspective of producers.
The season is so short – about 4-6 weeks – and potentially unpredictable that farmers, pickers, packers, and shippers spend these few weeks of the year in a buzz of activity. This year, unusual climate conditions caused the Washington cherry season to be late by a couple of weeks, affecting everything and everyone from the laborers to the packing schedule, salespeople, and daily export requests.
In addition, cherries must be kept very cold to preserve quality, so a great deal of energy and speed goes into washing, packing, and shipping under chilly conditions. In contrast to apples, which can be stored for months, cherries generally follow a "pick today, pack today, ship today or tomorrow" schedule. A packing plant like the one I visited might run 20-22 hours a day during peak season with nearly 200 people working each shift. (And there are about 60 main packing plants in the Northwest region.) At Sea-Tac airport, the number of air cargo flights doubles this time of year in order to ship out all the cherries.
Here, in homage to "How It's Made," is a video of one stage in the packing plant's approximately 8-minute process:
Although I live in Southern California and aim to eat local foods as much as possible, in reality I still eat many ingredients that come from elsewhere, and this was a fascinating first-hand glimpse at the energy and costs required for our global food supply chain. To be honest, there were moments during the tour when I thought, "I can never eat non-local produce again!" (Highly unlikely.) But most of all, I wound up with a deeper sense of appreciation for everyone involved – real people and hands that grow and harvest our cherries, carefully clean and sort them, and gently pack them into containers so we can enjoy their sweetness every summer.
(Information for this post was gathered during a press trip to Washington sponsored by Northwest Cherries and the Washington State Fruit Commission. All views and opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author.)