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Oregon cherry farmers turn to social media influencers to put cherries on top

Jan 07, 2024

It’s the peak of cherry harvest season in Oregon, and growers in the state this year expect to harvest around 112 million pounds of cherries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The cherries tumbled off rubber rollers into a series of stainless steel chutes, carried along by a cold stream of slightly chlorinated water, before arriving one by one at the end of the line sorted by size and variety.

“Disneyland for cherries,” is how the son of Brenda Thomas, president of Orchard View Cherries, described the sorting machine when he first spotted it at age 8.

Teams of workers inside Orchard View’s packing facility in The Dalles, which employs 250 workers at a time, scooped the cherries into funnels with six spouts, directing the cherries to multiple boxes and plastic bags at a time. Different workers whisked the packages to a large refrigerator where additional workers bundled in winter apparel loaded the cherries into four semitrucks headed for stores.

More than 50,000 pounds of cherries would move through this process per hour at the packing plant, part of the largest cherry operation in the state.

Workers at Orchard View Cherries' packing facility in The Dalles, Oregon, pick out leaves from the steady stream of cherries that travel through a sorting machine on their way to be packaged on Friday, June 30, 2023.

It’s the peak of cherry harvest season in Oregon, which starts in June and ends by late August, and growers in the state this year expect to harvest around 112 million pounds of cherries — including Chelan, Bing and Rainier varieties — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The cherry is not the most important fruit crop in Oregon. In the past 10 years, pears and blueberries have outranked cherries in terms of value to the state’s economy, bringing in $126 million and $133 million per year on average respectively. By comparison, cherries reaped just under $80 million per year on average for growers and packers, according to the USDA.

International export restrictions due to the pandemic, crop disease and extreme weather that yo-yoed between record heat in 2021 and late snow in 2022 marred the three previous cherry seasons.

But the cherry enjoys a certain nostalgia as a symbol of America — the key ingredient of cherry pies served all over the country each July — and Oregon cherry growers are hopeful this year’s above-average yield — and creative marketing efforts in partnership with social media influencers — will propel them to greater fortunes.

After the cherries were individually evaluated for sweetness, size and texture, they arrived one by one at the end of the production line at Orchard View Cherries' packing facility in The Dalles, Oregon on Friday, June 30, 2023.

“Growers have to be hopeful,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, a Yakima-based nonprofit that markets cherries from Oregon and other nearby states. “They wouldn’t be in this business if they didn’t have a sort of riverboat gambler soul. This crop is all about possibilities.We’ve done everything right, we’ve put all this effort in and now we’re waiting to see what happens.”

Before cherries wind up in packing facilities, farmworkers must remove them one by one from orchards across 13,000 acres in Oregon. Of those, more than 5,000 contiguous acres of cherry orchards spread over The Dalles, an important hub in the Columbia River Gorge for the state’s cherry industry.

The Dalles, Oregon, provides the perfect climate for growing cherries, and is home to more than 5,000 contiguous acres of cherry orchards. The minimal rain fall in the area is good for cherries, but often puts growers at odds with neighboring dryland wheat farmers who rely on rain to water their crops.

Cherries, like strawberries, remain one of the few crops in Oregon that rely heavily on manual labor for harvest. The fruit is delicate and small, which makes it hard to mechanize the process, Thurlby said. One bad move could bruise the cherry, remove the stem that extends the fruit’s shelf life or damage the underlying spur from which next year’s cherries will sprout. Blueberry growers once faced a similar dilemma, before they introduced mechanized harvesters that use blasts of air to shake blueberries from their bushes.

As of late last month, some of the workers who farmers rely on had yet to make it to the Pacific Northwest due to the record cold and wet spring that put California’s cherry harvest behind by three weeks, Thurlby said. California’s harvest doesn’t typically overlap with Oregon’s.

At smaller operations in The Dalles, including Stacey Cooper’s 220-acre orchard, harvest got underway with a nearly complete staff in June.

Farmworker Jose Manuel picks a bundle of cherries from a tree at Cooper Family Orchards on Friday, June 30, 2023. Manuel said he has been picking cherries for 11 years.

Last Friday around 7 a.m., dozens of farmworkers zigzagged through Cooper Family Orchard, plucking bunches of ruby red Bing cherries and gently dropping them into buckets strapped to their chests. They had already been at work since sunrise in order to finish before the hottest hours of the day.

Over and over again, workers dumped their buckets into 350-pound bins that, once full, forklift operators stacked into trucks headed to processing plants.

Over the course of the day, workers would harvest enough Oregon cherries to fill more than 200 bins — around 80,000 pounds.

Time is of the essence, Cooper said, because the delicate crop needs to be refrigerated within a couple of hours of picking and until the consumer is ready to eat the cherries. At the peak of the season, many growers will park refrigerated trucks in the orchards to start the cooling process well before the cherries arrive at a packing facility.

Megan Thompson, a horticulturist with Cascade Cherry Growers, embedded herself among the pickers in Cooper’s orchard last Friday and guided workers to the cherries that looked large and ripe enough to pick. She also told them which trees needed more time.

“I’ll tell them, ‘Tomorrow, you’re gonna be here, and then you need to be moving here,’” she said.

Thompson said the dozen or so cherry varieties grown in the Northwest fall into two main categories: yellow cherries and dark red sweet ones.

Cultivars like the Rainier cherry, developed at Washington State University in 1952, fall into the first category. Oregon’s signature Bing variety, first developed in Milwaukie in 1875, are in the second. Researchers are still developing new varieties that differ in taste, size, growth pattern and hardiness to extreme conditions, Thompson said.

“It’s all about figuring out what will work best for a grower,” Thompson said. “People have helped their risk out with multiple varieties. So maybe this variety goes down this year, or gets rained on or something, but they have a couple other varieties that can make it on the market.”

On the other side of Cooper’s orchard last week, Jose Manuel harvested a patch of Rainier cherries for a local farmers market. Cherry juice stained his fingernails. He’s been picking the crop for 11 years, he said.

Cooper said the Rainier variety can be a little tricky to grow well, which is why the majority of her acreage is devoted to dark red sweet cherries.

A farmworker at Cooper Family Orchards dumps a bucket of freshly picked Rainier cherries into bins that will be sold at local farmer markets on Friday, June 30, 2023. Growers use reflective Mylar strips to sunburn the cherries, giving the Rainiers their signature red blush.

Rainier cherries are sweet but naturally more yellow, and consumers have found that combination confusing.

“People equate yellow with lemons, not usually something sweet,” Thurlby said. “Red equates to sugar and flavor, and people kept saying, ‘We want more red on them.’”

Researchers developed a method to give Rainier cherries a red blush, using reflective sheets of Mylar on top of the soil to increase the fruit’s exposure to sunlight.

While sun exposure is a vital part of cherry growth, too much sun can have a devastating effect. The record-setting heat wave that hit the Northwest in 2021 baked Oregon’s cherries while they were still hanging from the trees, Cooper said.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Cooper said. “Cherries were literally cooking from the inside out.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, cold temperatures and heavy rain can lead to small fruit that splits. A cold wet spring, which included April snow, made 2022′s crop the smallest since 2008 at roughly 70.7 million pounds, according to the USDA.

“Harvest is always a challenge,” Cooper said. “It’s a good feeling too, but it’s a challenge. I worry every year but there’s not much you can do, especially in the middle of the night when it’s raining.”

Michelle Miller flew from Florida to Oregon to see the variety of fruit crops bolstering the Pacific Northwest economy.

She came at the invitation of the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission, overseen by the Oregon Department of Agriculture to improve the cherry industry for growers, and its sister organization, the Oregon Raspberry & Blackberry Commission. They paid Miller a daily fee of $4,000 and covered her hotel accommodations and several of her meals, according to cherry commission administrator Randi Alexander-Rolison. Miller was originally slated for a three-day visit with Oregon berry growers, but linked up with the cherry growers after the third scheduled day fell through.

“I took it to my commissioners and they said ‘absolutely, we’d love to have her,’” Alexander-Rolison said.

That brought Miller to The Dalles, where she was escorted by car to learn about Oregon’s cherry industry, which boosters pitched to her as a woman-dominated business. “Boss girls of the Oregon cherry business,” is what they called Miller’s hosts for the day.

As Thurlby chauffeured Miller and explained the use of Mylar to her, she spotted strips of it lining the hillside of Orchard View’s 3,500 acres of cherry trees.

“I’ve got to get a picture of that,” Miller said to Thurlby, as she hopped out of the car to pose next to the sun-kissed trees for her Instagram. The post was one of several Miller shared with her roughly 31,000 followers.

A post shared by Michelle Miller - Farm Babe (@thefarmbabe)

Miller is better known as the Farm Babe, an influencer of modest reach who started her content creation career to provide urban Americans a first-hand look at the country’s agricultural industries, she said. Miller said she grew up in a rural town in Wisconsin, where she participated in 4-H and helped with chores on friends’ farms.

“My followers are all about the farming aspect of it, and that’s what I’m most interested in, promoting farmers and understanding the facts behind our food,” Miller said. “So just knowing that the Rainier variety was originally yellow, but then they put down that Mylar to get redness into it so that the consumer would find it more appealing was really neat.”

Her career as a public speaker and influencer began when she started dating a farmer and had her own eyes opened to the work and people behind the food she eats, Miller said. Now, Miller is invited on harvest tours at farms of all sizes and products, where she creates social media content to help promote their commodities.

“I get a lot of satisfaction when I’m showcasing what I think are fun facts and interesting tidbits, and my followers like it too,” Miller said. “You’re learning about how to pit and look for the best fruit, what makes it unique and delicious, all the work that went into developing it and all the work that went into growing and harvesting and packing and shipping and all of a sudden now you just look at it with a completely different perspective. It really opens your eyes and helps you appreciate it.”

Providing that perspective to her followers helps ensure Northwest cherries remain a part of the conversation for the few months they’re on the market, Thurlby said.

“The growers have a strong belief in promoting their product and making sure that cherries are at the forefront of America’s table,” Thurlby said. “Cherries are so perishable, and they’re only around three months out of the year, so every year we kind of have to recreate the wheel when it comes to shelf space and marketing, to get people to remember to get excited about cherries again because they haven’t seen them for several months.”

The cherry growers are speaking to an American audience, but they’re also looking beyond the United States.

This year, the Northwest Cherry Growers have their eyes on international markets that were shuttered due to pandemic-era restrictions on imports, with special focus on Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia and China – one of the biggest importers of Northwest cherries.

Thurlby said that over the past few months, he’s taken several groups of international business people keen on importing Northwest cherries on tours of orchards and packing facilities in Washington’s Yakima Valley.

Karley Lange and B.J. Thurlby with the non-profit organization Northwest Cherry Growers stand in an unpicked cherry orchard at one of the highest elevations in The Dalles on Friday, June 30, 2023. Cherries grown at higher elevations typically reach maturity later than cherries grown closer to the Columbia River, Thurlby said.

Up to 35% of cherries grown in the Northwest end up overseas each year, when COVID-19 restrictions aren’t in the way and growers have enough crop to export, Thurlby said. Only 18% of last year’s stunted crop left the U.S.

“The Southeast Asian market is a great market for us,” Thurlby said. “It’s been one of the few markets that we still are seeing really good growth in.”

Canada remains the largest importer of Northwest cherries with an average of 50 million pounds per year, Thurlby said. European countries don’t import many Northwest cherries, instead opting for cherries grown in Turkey, which produces more cherries than any other country. Thurlby said Turkey has all but cornered the European market.

In the coming years, Thurlby said he is hopeful to grow into other international markets that currently don’t have the capacity to import cherries, including India. He said cold storage is the main challenge, since the delicate cherries need to be kept cool from within a few hours of when they’re picked until they’re eaten.

“India is really going to be our next big market, but it’s going to take another five to six years before we really get there,” Thurlby said.

In order for Oregon growers to have the banner year they’re expecting, California must get out of the way first.

Independence Day spells “bonkers” business for cherries, Thurlby said, and Oregon growers typically have that market mostly to themselves. California’s huge crop this year spilled over into July, filling the market with lower-priced fruit.

Unlike grain farmers who can sit on their product until the market is right to sell, cherry growers need to sell their crop before it rots — at whatever price the market has set.

Currently, cherries are selling to retailers at $1 per pound for any size, instead of the $2.50 to $3.00 range Northwest cherry growers usually hope for their averaged size cherries, Thurlby said. Thurlby said he hopes the price will spring back up after the California cherries are off of store shelves and replaced with Northwest cherries.

“They came into the market with the price down in the dumps, and we’re trying to figure out how to get it up,” he said. “And it’s been a challenge with all the fruit we’ve got to move through the system in such a short period of time.”

California isn’t just a competitor. The state’s consumers annually buy almost a third of Oregon’s cherry crop — more than 40 million pounds of cherries in years with an average yield. That’s more than customers in Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan and Korea buy combined, according to data from the Northwest Cherry Growers.

Most of the cherries that end up in California wind up in Los Angeles.

And that’s where Northwest Cherry Growers has focused its next creative marketing effort, inviting influencers and food writers next week to meet Northwest growers, learn about the crop and, of course, sample some cherries in LA.

Domestically and abroad, the organization is focusing on health messaging to intrigue shoppers, Thurlby said, and he hopes that will resonate with an LA audience. Cherries are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, and may even improve sleep and cognitive function, according to the USDA’s Western Human Nutrition Research Center.

“We’ll remind consumers ‘It’s cherry season, here’s your shot at getting some cherries for the year,’” Thurlby said. “This will be the first year that I think we’re going to get a shot in there without all these little complications. And with a big crop, we’re going to need it.”

A bin of cherries ready to be packaged by workers at Orchard View's packing facility in The Dalles, Oregon on Friday, June 30, 2023.

— Nick Gibson; [email protected]; 971-393-8259; @newsynicholas

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