I often stumble across old maps and aerial photos showing an evolution of land use on our farm, as well as those surrounding us. While recently preparing our fertilizer regimen for the season, I found a few archival photos dating back to the 1930s. The landscape was adorned with orchards throughout our little township. It appeared that most farming operations had dedicated orchard ground of some type. My father recalled the days of his youth and confirmed my observation. Orchards, including cherries, were prolific. He remembers my grandfather speaking of Pickett’s Cherry Farm located just west of us in Bellevue. That entire operation was dedicated solely to cherry production.
So, where have all the cherries gone? Was there some dramatic event that led to a decrease in cherry production? No. As it goes with most things in our lives, it was a slow evolution, a shift toward dedicating land for predictable crops of quality fruit.
Cherries, like other stone fruits, such as peaches and plums, are happier without extreme cold temperatures. The spring is a particularly vulnerable time for cherries, in that they bloom early and thus expose new green tissue to potentially damaging late freezes. And then, there are the challenges faced during the growing season: a host of rots can set in, as well as skin cracking, all brought on by excessive rain during the ripening window prior to harvesting in mid-June. Our counterparts in western Michigan have a more temperate climate that mitigates some of these factors. But the real domestic production is in Washington State, where a high, arid climate provides the necessary winter chilling hours, but avoids the humidity and pest pressure found in the Midwest. Out west, cherry orchards can receive a regular and controlled amount of water via irrigation and enjoy predictable sunny days on the slopes of the Sierras.
Recent numbers show that Washington State produces 63% of the country’s sweet cherries, followed by California and Oregon. Our rivals to the north maintain a sizeable hold on the domestic tart cherry used for processing, with production at 68%. And the global leader in overall cherry production, which might surprise you, is Turkey.
“Economies of scale are likely due to the great growing conditions,” said Gregory Lang, professor in the department of horticulture at Michigan State University. “Thus, those economies further reinforce the production advantages, including greater availability of labor—cherries require a lot of hand labor for relatively short, intense periods.”
While sweet cherry growers in the east tend to have lower profit margins due to weather and pest issues, eastern growers have the advantage of being closer to markets, so freshly harvested fruit is sweeter and more flavorful, Gregory noted.
Indeed, hope is not lost for Northern Ohio cherry lovers. A handful of small farms still dedicate limited land to this cherished fruit. Here at Quarry Hill, we maintain about five acres of cherries, and our good friends over at Miller Orchards in Amherst have perhaps the most cherry production in the area. I think a diversified orchard can always have a place for cherries. Customers are looking for a chance to source these fruits locally and to enjoy the simple summertime pleasure of spitting cherry pits out in the orchard.
The future may hold opportunities to expand the Ohio cherry production. High tunnels have become a solution for managing some of the most troublesome cherry-growing challenges. Breeding programs around the country are helping to select new varieties that can better tolerate cold, disease pressure, and moisture uptake. Unfortunately, this day and age requires a sharp pencil as well as a green thumb. As a grower, we continue to stay informed about new growing practices that will give us a chance at eking out a livelihood in the tree fruit business.
For those of you who are looking to add to your backyard edibles, cherry trees are also ideal for the home gardener. Planting a cherry tree can be a rewarding addition to any landscape. And while cultivating this fruit tree will take a little extra effort, you can reach out to us for guidance. (Just be sure to keep the axe out of the hands of any young boys attempting to relive George Washington’s tall tale.)
Cherries should be ripe for harvest about the second week of June. For information about the cherry harvest and pick-your-own events, visit QuarryHillOrchards.com.