What’s The State Of Cherry Production In The Pacific Northwest?

Washington cherriesQuality is the No. 1 thing cherry growers should be focused on in the Pacific Northwest says Lynn Long, Oregon State University Extension educator. As more and more acres of high-density plantings come into play, growers need to fine-tune production to ensure that the Pacific Northwest’s reputation for high-quality fruit remains intact.

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Hand-in-hand with an emphasis on growing the highest quality cherries, growers must mindfully renew blocks and use renewal pruning to their advantage. Growers who renovate orchards, keep blocks young, and renew fruiting wood are reaping the benefits by consistently producing high-quality fruit. But, this needs to be done by all the growers in order to strengthen the overall cherry industry.

Naturally, growers with an eye toward innovation are also paying close attention to the advantages it brings — whether that’s more efficient production, a faster return on investment, or both.

“We see some industry leaders that are taking the lead in innovation over the last 10 to 15 years. More growers have been willing to move in the direction of higher density plantings, new training system options, new varieties that are keeping the industry progressing forward,” he says. “More growers need to go in those directions if we’re going to maintain a reputation as a progressive industry,” he says.

Some growers are hesitant, though to go after the benefits of higher-density plantings, new training systems, and investing in new varieties — simply because of the up-front costs in moving toward a more progressive growing system. They want to wait to see how it pans out for other growers before taking the leap themselves. Growers who neglect to see the advantages of renewal and high-density plantings not only put the yield and quality of their crops at risk, they could put themselves out of business, Long says.

“We’ve got to have young orchards that are producing good-quality fruit. When orchards are getting old, we’ll see a decline in yield and quality,” he says. “It’s become more and more difficult for growers who are not capable of producing high quality. We’ll see them drop out of the industry,” he says.

However, Long says that even the hesitant growers are starting to see the benefits to innovation.

“They’re beginning to understand that there is a financial advantage with high early yields, high sustainable yields,” he says.

This progression of renewal and high-density plantings weren’t always the case Long notes.

“For years and years, everything was the same. We grew Bing, and put it on a Mazzard rootstock. But since the mid-to-late ’90s, things have changed dramatically. We have new rootstocks, new training systems, new ways of dealing with pests. Things have already been turned upside down. This continues the process,” he says.

The Next Wave
Varieties, rootstocks, and training systems have been Long’s focus for the past few years. He has examined how KGB, UFO, and super slender axe training systems impact yields, and has been looking at Krymsk 5 and Krymsk 6, as well as variety trials being conducted for several years. New rootstock trials will begin with spring plantings in Washington and Oregon with the new Michigan State University sour cherry rootstocks — Clinton, Cass, Clare, Lake, and Crawford. He readily admits that he was a bit skeptical of the rootstocks at first because of how productive they can be, and he was unsure how successful they would be within the cherry industry.

However, he says these new rootstocks “have the potential of turning the industry upside down.”

Thinking back to the tried and true of the Pacific Northwest — Bings on Mazzard — Long says he sees some serious inconsistencies in yield.

“We may have 7 tons per acre, the next year 3 tons, the third year we may have 10 tons or maybe it’s 2 — it’s all over the board,” he says.

Long says he prefers rootstocks like a Krymsk 5 that is a moderate producer and precocious, but is easier for growers to achieve that ideal leaf-to-fruit balance, so they’re not battling the tree all the time.

“These new rootstocks are at least as dwarfing as Gisela 5 and at least as productive as Gisela 5. The trend is to higher productivity,” he says.

But, as he considers the potential of these new MSU rootstocks, he sees some distinct advantages.

“If I can go in there and chemically thin flowers, or even fruitlets, to reduce crop and hand thin so I can choose the optimum yield for that block of cherries, every single year, I can produce 10 tons year in and year out. That’s the potential that these rootstocks, have” he says. “That’s very interesting for the industry. It’s going to take some greater input on the growers part to have to thin flowers or fruit, or a combination of the two. If you can get the optimum yield, then maybe that’s attractive to growers.”

Three of the five rootstocks advance ripening considerably. Early-to-the-market advantages and yield predictability may cause growers to give these rootstocks a second look.

“If you’re in an early site, you can choose an earlier harvest window that may allow you to receive higher returns,” he says.

Research On The Horizon
Long has also been working with a team of researchers on anti-rain cracking agents and with Yan Wang of Oregon State University to study the application of calcium to increase the postharvest shelf life of cherries. All this, he says, is conducted with the end goal of making growers more financially sustainable.

“[We want] to learn how to keep cherries as fresh as possible for as long as possible. Calcium helps to maintain the health of stems and reduces the amount of fruit pitting,” he says.

Regrettably, soil health is a component of production that the industry and science has somewhat neglected, Long says. As much emphasis as being put on the canopy, training systems, and leaf-to-fruit ratios in research, attention should be paid to the trees’ root health as well.

“There’s so much that we don’t know. We’ve focused on the visible portion of the tree, but we have put very little into the portion of the tree we can’t see,” he says.

Research is often hindered by a lack of resources and most importantly, funding. This often puts soil research at the bottom of the metaphorical pile.

“We as scientists need to be doing more to evaluate and research some of these options,” he says. “With universities, lots of time there’s just not the resources available to design projects and focus on this. We [at OSU] don’t have a soil scientist working in tree fruit. We’ve been talking about that for years. But we haven’t followed up with the research, because of the lack of resources.”

As growers explore new rootstocks, higher density production, and new technology Long says this is not only a good time to be a Pacific Northwest cherry grower, but it’s also a time where “interesting things are coming along.”