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Gone Cherry Pickin’

by Meghann on July 13, 2012

Welcome to Cherry Land!

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Or – as they refer to it around here – Rainier Fruit Company , one of Whole Foods amazing cherry distributors.

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Sit back, and relax, because boy do I have a doozy of a blog post for you about the incredible journey (from tree to packaging) of the cherry.

My day started early with a beautiful run near our bed & breakfast.

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I covered just over 3 miles and saw some beautiful vineyard, hops fields, and horses along the way. Did you know Washington state is the #1 hops producer in the country? I know I didn’t. Learned that little gem yesterday when we drove into town and saw tall looking vineyards – turns out they were hops fields.

After my short run, I had a quick shower before walking downstairs to breakfast.

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One of my favorite things about staying at a bed & breakfast is the delicious breakfast usually served in the morning. We were all greeted with fresh juice, yogurt, and homemade granola.

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I was really excited about the homemade granola, but really it was the yogurt that blew me away. It was thick, creamy, and heavenly.

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For our main course, we were served an italian frittata with fresh tomato sauce, havarti cheese, and parmesan. On the side came fresh fruit, a bran muffin, and roasted potatoes. Everything was absolutely delicious.

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After breakfast, we hopped in the SUV and road tripped it to Rainier Fruit Company across town.

Rainier is one of the largest fruit distributors in the Washington area. They handle a wide variety of fruit; including apples, grapes, pears, blueberries, and cherries(!).

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They have growers spread out across Yakima Valley, which can make it tough to travel and check in on all the fields.

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You know…. Unless you have a helicopter to get around in.

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Which they totally do. I mean who doesn’t now a days?!

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I mean, if you’re gonna travel across the backbone of Washington, you might as well travel in style. ;)

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First of all, this was my first helicopter ride ever (SO COOL!!!)

Second of all, they let me sit in front! Talk about a rush!

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I always thought helicopters were supposed to be shaky and scary, but this ride wasn’t at all. The take-off was so smooth and effortless that I didn’t even realize we were doing it. It was like all of a sudden I looked out the window and thought, “oh, that’s cool, we’re totally flying now.” No big deal.

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The views of the valley were amazing. We hovered at about 1000 feet up in the air and everything just resembled miniature toy versions of their full size counterparts. Nothing seemed real.

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The coolest thing was flying over the cherry fields and getting a good view from overhead. We were told that birds LOVE cherries, so when they’re on the verge of ripeness protective bird nets are placed on top of the cherry trees to protect the crop. The white ones you see in the background also have the same effect as an overcast sky, which cools the cherries down a bit.

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Halfway through our 30 minute flight across the valley, our pilot looked over and asked if I wanted to take over the controls. Part of me wanted to say no (too scary!), but the other part knew I couldn’t turn down the chance to say I’ve flown a helicopter before. He gave me a quick lesson of how to gently guide the helicopter with my hand, then turned the controls over to me.

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We quickly wobbled to the left, and then to the right – the stick was way more sensitive than I thought it would be!

Eventually I was able to even it out and guided us for about 3 or 4 minutes. Then my palms got sweaty and I handed the controllers back over. It was fun for a minute, but way too much pressure to go on for longer than that!

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Check out the Columbia River that runs right through the valley. Gorgeous!

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30 minutes after take off, we landed at our first destination for the day. We were starting our cherry journey from the beginning… in the field.

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From here you can kind of get a better view of the bird netting.

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Cherry season runs all summer and is broken up into parts based on type and variety. Some types of cherries ripen sooner than others, while others have to be harvested in stages. Typically they’ll go through and harvest the top layer of cherries on the trees first (since they get the most sun), then they’ll come back and get the second and third level of cherries on the trees once they’ve had their own time to ripen in the sun.

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The cherries being picked today were beautiful. Big, red, and juicy.

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All of the cherries are picked by hand, by some of the thousands of seasonal pickers who sleep, eat, and work at the fields through the season. They work in the field with crews, filling up 20-25 pound buckets of cherries. As they fill the bucket, an inspector is on hand throwing out the bad and ensuring the quality of the cherry is on par with the company’s goals. This is only the first of many rounds of inspections the cherries will face on their long journey to the supermarket shelves.

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Each bucket of cherries is labeled clearly with variety, lot number, and date. This information stays with the cherries from the minute they’re picked from the tree, to when they are packaged and shipped. It’s important to have everything marked just in case something goes wrong.

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The cherries are also graded by size in this stage – larger cherries = $$.

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Nothing better than a fresh cherry right off the tree.

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From the field, the cherries are immediately picked up and brought through a 40 degree hydro-cooler bath. Their goal is to keep the cherries at 35 degrees from that point on.

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Form the cooler, they are placed in the truck and shipped to Rainier headquarters to be packed and shipped.

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Some fun facts I learned in the field:

  • Heat kills cherries! Try to keep them cool at home by storing them in the fridge. They’ll keep longer and you’ll have a better cherry in the end.
  • The cherries we picked today could be at a Whole Foods near you tomorrow. Rainier has a 24-hr turn around policy and likes to get cherries out the door asap after they’re picked.
  • 90% of cherries at Rainier are conventional, and 10% are organic. Because of the higher price point, there isn’t a huge pull for organic cherries.
  • You can usually tell a good cherry by the stem. A healthy stem, means a healthy cherry.

We left our cherries at the field, and promised we meet up with them again at the plant.

While they were taking their sweet time driving through the valley, we hopped back in the helicopter to head to lunch.

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Can’t say I’ve ever taken a helicopter to lunch before. I could get used to this.

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My blogging buddies – Gaby and Anjali.

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Lunch was at Cave B Inn – Tendril’s Restaurant.

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I wasn’t feeling the heavy sandwiches, so I went with the scallops. The meal was light and refreshing – exactly what I was going for.

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Some sparkling wine for dessert? Don’t mind if I do!

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After lunch we hopped back in the helicopters and re-met up with our cherries at the packing plant. (In reality, these weren’t the actual cherries we picked, but they could have just as easily been the same ones.)

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Check these babies out – they don’t get much fresher than that!

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We were rockin’ the neon vests in the plant. Safety first!

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Once the cherries arrive at the plant, a small sampling from each lot is taken for quality control. (p.s. this is the owner’s daughter working the machine. I love how Rainier is a 5th-generation family business.)

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The cherries are tested for firmness, sweetness, size, stem diameter, etc. before moving inside (after they’ve passed all the tests, of course.)

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From there, the cherries enter the plant and have their first run on the conveyor belt.

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This is where the excess leaves and sticks are tossed aside, and the stems are split.

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Form there, the cherries are sorted by size. All of the cherries that are a certain size or higher, make their way down the sorter and onto the next round of quality control.

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The ones that are too small, fall down the tubes and are sold to another company to eventually become maraschino cherries.

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The large cherries that pass the test, will next go through the hands-on sorting line.

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Each lot has its own list of specific defects that the sorters are asked to look out for.

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The smaller cherries are placed in the green bin to join the other small cherries heading to a maraschino future, the ones with cosmetic imperfections (such as heal cracks) are placed in the red bin and will eventually become jam or a dried cherries. None of the cherries that come in will go to waste. The ones that aren’t good enough to go to market, will be sold to other companies to be repurposed in other manners.

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After the cherries are sorted by hand, they take a very cold bath to cool them back down and clean them up.

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They are then sorted one last time by size, just to make sure there weren’t any small stragglers.

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Our guide called it a “cherry water slide” park.

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From there they are packaged to sell.

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Different buyers request different packing. Most of the supermarkets prefer plastic bags to sell by the pound, while wholesalers (like Costco), like the plastic “clam” packaging where they all weigh the same and can be priced the same.

The last stop is the cooler, where they’re boxed up and loaded on the trucks.

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That’s one crazy journey the cherries make!

What I found interesting was how much quality control goes into the cherries. These babies are tested, then retested, sorted, then resorted, and washed, then rewashed. It’s amazing any of them even make it out the door! But it’s the way that Rainier makes sure that the highest quality product goes out the door and the customer is happy with the beautiful cherries they paid for.

After our tour concluded, we were brought back for a cherry taste testing. Rainier grows 7 variety of cherries, and we had a chance to try 5 of them side-by-side.

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Unfortunately, most stores do not market cherries by variety, they’re usually labeled by “sweet” or “sour” (with the exception of the white fleshed Rainier cherry). Different varieties of cherries ripen at different times during the season, so your bag of “sweet” cherries in early June could be bing, while you’re “sweet” cherries in July could be skeena. This is why you never really know what you’re going to get when you buy cherries from one week to the next during the season. Interesting, right?

It was still fun to sample what was offered side-by-side to really see which ones stood out over others.

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The Lapin cherries are big, fleshy cherries that aren’t generally as sweet as other varieties. They’re not a favorite of buyers and are usually shipped to the lower end stores.

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Skeena are sweeter cherries that have a nice, firm crisp to them. Their picking window is very short. I liked how sweet and crunchy these cherries were, definitely a favorite.

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The Rainier cherries have a wide range of flavor depending on when they are picked. I had a not-so-great bag of Rainier cherries the other week that weren’t sweet and probably picked too early. The ones they had us try today were perfect. They were so sweet, they were almost like candy. These are also white fleshed cherries that makes them stand out a little bit from other sweet cherries.

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The Sweetheart cherries are named after the heart they resemble on the vine. They have a moderate crunch with a softer skin and a bit of a tartness to them. These were my favorite. I think they would be great in a baked good or pie.

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The Bing is the most traditional cherry, but I have to say it was my least favorite out of all of them. It had less of a bite and was sort of blah. I mean, it was still a good cherry, but after tasting it next to the rest, I have to say it falls to the bottom of the pack. Sorry, Bing!

I think at this point we were all a little cherried-out. We had been eating them all day (from the tree to the plant to taste testing) and I believe we were all ready for a good meal. Luckily, we had one waiting for us at the Inn. A 6-course cherry themed feast. Yes, please!

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Local Washington wine, of course. ;)

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The bread was served with a in-house butter made with fresh herbs from the garden outside.

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First course: Seared Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast, Soft Herbed Polenta, Walla Walla Sweet Onion Jam, and finished with a Rainier Cherry Cabernet Reduction.

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I’m not usually a fan of duck, but this duck was perfect. It melted under my fork and just went perfectly with the sweet onion jam and cherry cabernet reduction. I also loved the polenta, which was a little grainy, but not in a bad way.

Second course: Fresh Organic Mixed Greens from the Garden Gorgonzola Cheese and Housemade Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing

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The cheese, oh the cheese! I would have been happy with that little block of gorgonzola and nothing else. :)

Third course: Fresh Alaskan Halibut with Shittake Mushroom Risotto, Oregon Shrimp Sauce and Drizzle of Truffle Oil.

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The fish had been pan fired, which gave it a nice crisp coating. The risotto was extra rich and creamy. They only gave a little taste, but that little taste was really all you needed.

Fourth course: Anderson Farms Lamb Chops, Grilled and Glazed with Washington Apple, Dijon and Soy. Finished with a Benton Cherry Sauce.

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This was sadly my least favorite dish. The lamb was a little fatty and I did not like the potato. It was the only low point of the entire meal.

Fifth course: Zirkle Fruit Organic Blueberry Shortcake, Fresh Creme and Wild Mint.

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No words. By far my favorite dish of the night.

Sixth course: Birchfield Manor Chocolate Tray

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I tried the housemade caramel and chocolate cookie stick. I ate all of the caramel, but didn’t really like the cookie stick.

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Put a fork in me. I’m done. ;)

Can’t wait for more cherry adventures in the morning!

Oh! And you can have your own cherry adventures too!

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Don’t forget to check out the Whole Foods Cherry Fest 1-day sale! Only $1.99 a pound! Who knows? You might even purchase some of the cherries I helped pick today! ;)

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