Where did cherries originate?
Sweet cherries originated in Asia Minor in the fertile areas between the Black and Caspian seas and were likely brought to Europe by birds. The Greeks were the first to cultivate cherries and the Romans continued to increase and expand production.
Cherries came to the U.S. with English colonists in 1629 and later were introduced to California by Spanish missionaries. In the 1800s, sweet cherries were moved west by pioneers and fur traders to their major sites of production in Washington, Oregon and California. Today, California is the second largest producing state in the U.S. behind Washington. Harvest in California begins in mid-April and concludes in early to mid-June.
How are cherries grown and harvested?
Commercially-produced cherries are grafted to a rootstock and planted in straight rows in orchards. Farmers typically plant about 100 trees per acre. Pollination is essential for production and because cherry trees are not self-pollinating, two varieties of cherries must be planted in each orchard at a ratio of 9 to 1. Honey bees are the main pollinator.
After an orchard is planted, it takes about 6 years until it produces its first major crop. California cherries for the fresh market are harvested by hand leaving the stem, or pedicels, intact. They are harvested at the firm-mature stage and, traditionally, color change is used to determine when they are ready for harvest.
Fresh cherries have an extremely short shelf life and must be handled carefully to reduce bruising. As soon as cherries are picked from the trees, they are brought to a packing facility where they are immediately cooled using chilled water – a process called hydro cooling. They are then sorted by size and color and packed into boxes for shipping to markets around the world.
Cherries are very susceptible to damage from rain as they near harvest. For this reason, the volume of each year’s crop can vary depending on spring weather in California growing areas.
Where are California cherries grown?
The largest producing county for California cherries is in the center of the state in San Joaquin County near the small farming town of Lodi. This is where the traditional Bing cherry variety is grown because of the ideal climate that provides cold winter temperatures and warm, but not too hot, temperatures in the spring and summer months. Hot weather can cause Bing cherries to produce “doubles” or “spurs” which are considered defects. However, in recent years newer cherry varieties have been developed that are able to withstand higher temperatures. These varieties are now planted in California counties that are further south, as well as in the traditional San Joaquin County growing areas.
Click here for more information on California cherry varieties.