If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably sick of me tweeting about two things: cherries and the weather. I’ve explained, in detail, why the weather is so important to me this time of year. Let me take a moment to explain why I keep tweeting about cherries.
It’s In My Face
For the past month, cherries have been an integral part of my life. I’m living across the street from a very large cherry orchard. My helicopter is actually parked in the orchard. I drive or walk into the orchard nearly every day. I’ve also spent literally hours flying over the orchard’s trees, low-level. I feel that I have a first-hand knowledge of the orchard surpassed only by its owners, managers, and workers.
Even before I moved to my temporary home across the street, I visited the orchard. The first time was in June. Back then, the cherries were bunches of small pink dots, clustered on the branches. A few weeks later and there hadn’t been any serious change. It seemed like they’d never get ripe.
Then I moved here and started to observe the activity at the orchard. Watering every morning and night. Spraying for pests many afternoons. Bringing in hundreds (if not thousands) or red wooden cherry bins. Bringing in the portable toilets and ladders for the pickers. Cleaning out the shed. Moving in heavy equipment, like the hydrocooler and its water chiller with massive diesel generator. Preparing the tractors and bin trailers and forklifts. Distributing the bins among the rows of trees.
The cherries took their own time to ripen and the growers couldn’t rush them. When the packing plant had a high demand for fruit, some picking began tentatively, pulling the scant ripe cherries from the trees. Then quiet again as they waited.
I did my part, blowing rainwater off the trees four times, protecting the vulnerable fruit from water damage.
Picking for One
I asked for and got permission to pick cherries for my own consumption. Two or three times a week, I’d head out into the orchard and find some trees with dark red, ripe fruit. I’d fill a small colander, then head back to my trailer with my prizes. I used my RV’s small sink to wash off whatever they’d been spraying on the fruit with cold water baths and rinses. Once clean, the fruit looked beautiful. So beautiful that I couldn’t help by take photos to share on Twitter and in my blog.
I think what I like most about the cherries I pick is the way they’re so unlike store bought cherries. They haven’t been processed. Don’t misunderstand me — processing doesn’t hurt the cherries. It cleans them, probably better than I do. But it also cuts the stems to separate the bunches of cherries and sorts them by size. In my plastic cherry bin, the cherries are still bunched together in twos, threes, and fours — just the way I picked them. Some of them even have small leaves attached. And although most of the cherries I pick are quite large, I’ve also picked the small ones that never make it into stores. That somehow makes my cherries seem more natural. More real.
Even if they’re so perfect looking that they seem fake in photos.
There’s So Much To It
There’s something about being part of the farming process that really makes you appreciate your food. People see cherries in a bag at the supermarket, but do they ever think about what went into getting them there?
This orchard is on the side of a hill that is, in some places, very steep. Someone had to clear the land of scattered pine trees, sage bushes, tall grass, and big rocks. They had to plant rows of young trees and protect them from deer and other grazing animals with tall fences. They had to put in irrigation systems that would deliver fresh water, on demand, to the bases of the trees from a system of reservoirs stair-stepping down the hillside. They had to prune the trees, spray them for pests, fertilize them. They had to protect them during harsh winters and late spring frosts.
They did this for years, nurturing the trees as they began to bear fruit and grow, always adding more trees and irrigation to expand the orchard. Now, this orchard is 86 acres, but I can see the newest, youngest trees, just planted this year, on a hillside not far away. With a few years of care, they’ll be bearing fruit, too.
It isn’t always easy. The orchard’s reservoir is filled by turning a valve that brings water down from another reservoir at the top of the hill. The other day, someone left the valve open too long. The reservoir overflowed and flooded out the overflow area. Two small dams were on the verge of breaking; one of them would have released enough water to take out a road the pickers needed to get to a far orchard block. It was fortunate that a large backhoe was available nearby. The grower was able to dig out a channel to direct the water to a nearby stream. While it must have hurt to release valuable water he’d paid for, it was better than having a road rebuilt or possibly losing access to 15 acres of trees.
Picking began in earnest about two weeks ago, then stopped suddenly for five days. It started again yesterday. This grower picks for color — they’ll go through the same trees more than once to pick only the best, ripest fruit. They’re probably about halfway done; trees I picked fruit from only a week ago are now picked clean.
I’ve already documented the picking process in my “Cherries: From Tree to Truck” video. What I’ve learned is that every orchard does things a little differently. The process here is similar, but not quite the same.
It’s going on as I type this. From my office window, I can see the pickers moving ladders. I can see their cars parked out in the orchard. I can hear the refrigerated tractor trailer truck pulling up for another load of 30,000+ pounds to take away to the packing plant. The tractors pull in with full cherry bins, the water truck sprays down the roads to keep the dust down, the forklifts shuffle the cherry bins around.
It’s a good day for picking: very cool, partly cloudy. They might work until 2 PM today — a full day, considering they started at first light.
It’s an amazing thing to be part of. Can’t help it if it makes me want to talk about cherries.