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Behind the scenes at cherry harvestPrint

Food & Farming | August 1, 2013 | By Zoë McAlear

A few weeks ago, the farmers market doubled in size. Summer had truly arrived and all of the stands were overflowing with new produce—local cherries in particular. All the farmers offered free samples, and there were few shoppers who didn’t give in. Cherry season had begun.

To celebrate the occasion, MLUI’s Communications Manager James Russell and I decided we wanted to learn more about the cherry harvest. So we traveled up to Johnson Farms on Old Mission Peninsula to see it first-hand.

Heatherlyn Johnson Reamer, daughter of farm owner Dean Johnson, is part of the family’s sixth generation on the farm. More than a hundred years ago, it was just a small homestead that specialized in cattle farming, until Heatherlyn’s grandfather engineered their current receiving station and set the stage for their fruit operation, which includes apples and grapes in addition to all of the cherries and stretches over 850 acres.

She gave us a tour of the farm and explained every step of the cherry process.

It all begins, of course, in the orchard. Johnson Farms has four crews of workers, and a mix of employees including family members, migrant workers—many of whom return every year—and a new resurgence of local high school students seeking summer employment. The cherry-harvesting season only lasts about four weeks, but usually consists of 16-18 hour days, making it an exhausting affair for everyone involved. The light sweet cherries are harvested first, then the dark sweet cherries, and lastly, a “fast and furious” push to harvest the tart cherries.

In the orchard, crews use two different types of machinery to pick the cherries. Three of the crews operate a “one-man shaker,” where one person drives a tractor, carefully positioning a clamp around a tree trunk and circling it with a tarp that catches the cherries that fall as it’s shaken. The cherries run through a chute in the machine before being deposited in a metal transporting container where they’re protected in cold water.

The fourth crew does something a little bit different with their “rollout catching frame.” One person drives the actual shaker, which clamps around the tree, and another drives a machine with a giant conveyor belt attached to a roll-out tarp. Two people pull the tarp out so it splits around a tree and collects all of the fallen cherries in its ridges. The machine then retracts the tarp so that the cherries are deposited on the conveyor belt and carried to the metal container.

You can actually feel the ground shake under your feet when these machines are at work. It’s an incredibly smooth process, making you wonder how cherries were ever gathered by hand.

The goal is to fill the water-filled metal containers with cherries and transport them back to the receiving station. The most important thing is to keep the cherries cold so that they firm up and don’t get damaged in transport. At the receiving station, cold water is circulated through the tanks until they’re ready to be measured for volume, which can be used to find their weight.

Johnson Farms’ irrigation and wastewater management system is unique. As water overflows from the metal containers, it’s captured underground and pumped through a half mile of pipeline that was hand-buried by Heather’s grandfather, to be re-used in watering the trees.

The receiving station is the center of the action, where employees take in all of the cherries on the farm and get them ready to be transported to all of the processors and food production companies that will be turning the cherries into marketable goods. They go to places like Pinnacle Foods Inc., which turns them into pie filling and ice cream sauce, Great Lakes Packing Company and Shoreline Fruit, which produce dried cherries, and Smeltzer Orchard Co.

Local cherry farmers are thankful for the weather this year, which has allowed for a bountiful crop. Last year, unusually warm weather early in the season caused the trees to flower too early, only to be destroyed by later frosts, resulting in a year without many cherries. This year, the seasons are cooperating and the weather hasn’t been too violent, although Heatherlyn put in a wish for a little more rain.

Everyone knows that this region is famous for its cherry production, but few understand the process that brings the cherries from the trees to the markets and grocery stores. It’s always a gamble in terms of weather and farmers invest so much valuable time, energy, and money into trying to produce a successful crop. In years like this one, where it mostly turned out well, it seems only right to genuinely thank the farmers and enjoy the bountiful crop of cherries.

We sure did—bringing two delicious bags of sweets back to the office that were gone in a couple of hours.