Nursery Notes: Cherries may go stemless with machine harvesting

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The nursery was closed for the season around freeze up in mid-October. I put the leftover trees and shrubs together, pot to pot, in an area out of the wind and sun. I make sure they are well watered in. Once they have frozen up safe and sound, I need only check the greenhouses out for snow and ice buildup. I am quite happy that I’m not baby sitting a crop of poinsettias through a cold and windy fall. One of my first jobs in a greenhouse was helping to throw out a couple acres of holiday pepper plants that hadn’t sold for Christmas. It was followed by another week of throwing out frozen primulas as a few greenhouses farthest from the boiler hadn’t been able to stay above freezing one night. There isn’t a lot of forgiveness growing tropical plants at this time of year.

I am happy to have a short break from the greenhouses and nursery before Christmas. Once I’ve put a solid plan together for the next year, supplies are ordered. I get to spend some time in the orchard with my dad. I still have about a thousand cherry trees to farm, as well as an acre of apples, and some apricots and peaches, too. While I wouldn’t recommend pruning your backyard fruit trees until later in spring, I can’t guarantee I’ll have the time later on. So I start now. This time of year there is less snow on the ground. It is cold enough to be dry. As long as the wind isn’t howling, it’s not too bad. While we prune the trees I get filled in on the family news. I also like to reflect on the year that has come and gone.

There is research being carried out in Washington state on growing and harvesting stemless sweet cherries by machine. Sour cherries or pie cherries grown for processing have long been shaken from the tree by machine harvesters. There are some pretty neat videos of this uploaded to YouTube. At farmers markets I attend through summer, folks are still amazed to find out that our cherries are picked and sorted by hand. “What other way could we do this?” I ask myself as a grower.

The last few years, they have been training sweet cherries to grow upward on an vertical axis in Washington — the idea being to be able to drive a machine in under the branches and collect the fruit with as little damage as possible. How this will work out in economic terms is anyone’s guess but they are onto something. Labour costs keep going up. There is an ad for a blueberry harvester (machine) in front of me stating that handpicking a pound of blueberries runs about $0.60/pound and for a 50-acre field about $0.15/pound with a machine harvester.

The difficulty for machine harvested sweet cherries may be in having them come to market stemless. On the other hand, perhaps this could be seen as beneficial.

I hope you all have an enjoyable pre-holiday season!

Evan Davies owns Beltane Nursery at 2915 Highway 3 in Erickson.