Cherry Picking on the Columbia
Has summer arrived late, or does it just seem that way? Cliff Mass, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, explains: “It happens almost every year, and we sometimes lose faith that it will occur: the transition to meteorological summer in the Northwest. Often, as in this year, it happens right after July 4th, and almost certainly by mid-July, resulting in the oft-noted statement by the meteorological cognoscenti that summer starts on July 12th in western Washington.” It’s been more of a nail-biter than usual for Central Washington cherry growers, as intermittent late rains threatened splitting and temperatures in the triple digits now compresses harvest of early varieties of this delicate crop into a few short weeks.
Just as harvest reached full swing, a group of Full Circle employees and members (that’s you!) travelled to Brewster, Washington to pick cherries at the invitation of Paul Madden and his family, whose excellent Earth Conscious Organics fruit we have been sourcing since 2007. Paul is a fourth-generation orchardist who took over the family’s farm and transitioned to organic practice in 1990 along with his wife, Janice; they’ve raised four daughters on the farm as well – perhaps their proudest achievement. Working with co-owner Bruce Henne, they’ve found innovative ways to market their fruit directly (as opposed to through the big packing houses), and have managed to save their historic farm and create a beautiful slice of heaven on the banks of the Columbia.
We arrived Saturday afternoon and were a bit surprised at how hot it was. After all, we’ve had only one short spell of 70-degree weather until last week! Cherry harvest had finished for the day; the workers begin at 4:30 a.m. and the fruit is cooling in the shed by 9. The cherries are picked selectively by color, and once the temperature reaches 80 degrees, they are too soft to pick until the next morning. There is real meaning to the phrase “cherry-picking”! Paul showed us how it’s done: very carefully with three fingers, the cherries are gently grasped by the stems and lifted until they detach. If this isn’t done just so, the nodes will be damaged and next year’s crop will suffer.
After a meandering tour through the orchards (and many mouths full of Rainier cherries), we set up our tents and splashed about in the river, accompanied by the Maddens’ two very entertaining Labradoodles. As the heat subsided, we gathered on the lawn for a delicious feast prepared by Janice and a team comprised of family members and friends. For a digestif, we took a four mile hike up the canyon across the highway and back, something the family does every day, whether in running clothes or snow gear and goggles. Although they usually run, they slowed for us to a power-walk. The views out over the valley- the nation’s largest cherry-producing area – were stunning as the stars began to appear. Day broke the next morning to the sound of the workers in the orchard, the low voices, laughter and singing drifting up through the trees.
To read more about this wonderful family and the growers who make up their small cooperative, have a look at their website. We’ll have their Rainier and Lapin cherries in our boxes for the next few weeks, and later in the year, apples to take us through the winter. Somehow, the cherries seem extra sweet now.