Here at the heart of the Columbia Gorge grow some of the world’s finest sweet cherries, protected from damaging storms by the broad shoulders of Mount Hood. Although there have been cherry orchards here for more than a century, the industry has changed, and so have the cherries.
A generation ago, cherry growers focused on the lipstick-red concoction called the maraschino. Not a pick-from-the-tree variety, the maraschino is based on an ancient Croatian recipe adapted by OSU food scientist Ernest Wiegand in the 1920s. Using Royal Anne cherries as a base, processing maraschino cherries became a big industry in Oregon during the mid-20th century; two of the nation’s largest producers of maraschinos are still here.
But more Oregon growers are tearing out their Royal Annes and replanting with fresh sweet cherry varieties that are in high demand in Asia and Europe. Northwest sweet cherry production is trending upward, according to Lynn Long, an OSU Extension horticulturist who works with cherry growers in The Dalles area. But being a player in a global market is not a bowl of cherries. To compete, Oregon cherry growers are lengthening the season with new varieties that either ripen early (Chelan) or late (Sweetheart) to help get Oregon cherries on the market longer and help improve price. Growing sweet cherries for the fresh market demands a strategic understanding of international trade, consumer preferences, and state-of-the-art horticulture in addition to a sweet place on the sunny side of the mountain.