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Oregon sweet cherries make their mark on the world.

Tucked in the shadow of Mount Hood, on hillsides overlooking the Columbia River, grow some of the finest sweet cherries in the world. The mountain blocks most of the rain that blows in from the west, protecting the cherries from weather that would otherwise split and soften the fruit. Although there have been cherry orchards here in The Dalles for generations, the industry has changed, and so have the cherries.

For one thing, there’s more profit in fresh cherries now. A generation ago, the industry centered on the sugary, lipstick-red concoction called the maraschino. Not a pick-from-the-tree variety, the maraschino was originally created from marasca, a small black cherry that grew wild on the coast of present-day Croatia. To preserve them, the ancients pickled the cherries in seawater then marinated them in a liqueur made from the marasca’s juice and pits. A taste for the marinated marascas soon drifted beyond the Croatian shores, and variations on the original recipe flourished.

By the early 1900s, maraschinos were decorating cocktails and topping off ice-cream sundaes and glazed hams. But they were still made with European cherries, because it was said that American cherries were just too soft.

Then came Ernest Wiegand, a horticulturist who joined the faculty of Oregon Agricultural College in 1919, who labored for a decade to perfect a new maraschino cherry made from Oregon’s Royal Anne cherries. The secret, it seems, was in the brine. The Croatians had used seawater; so Weigand added a dash of calcium salts to firm the cherries and a dash of almond extract to simulate the taste of marasca pits.

Processing maraschino cherries became a big industry in Oregon during the mid-20th century. The nation’s two biggest maraschino manufacturers are still right here in Oregon. But tastes change, and demand has softened for a cherry that has been bleached white then dyed red, impregnated with sugar, and packed in an almond-flavored syrup.

cherries by Lynn Ketchum

Today, Oregon growers are tearing out their Royal Annes and replanting with fresh sweet cherry varieties that are in high demand in export markets in Asia and Europe. But being a player in a global market is not always just a bowl of cherries.

Northwest sweet cherry production is trending upward, according to Lynn Long, an OSU Extension horticulturist who works with cherry growers in The Dalles area. The acreage has almost doubled in the past decade, with 300 to 400 trees per acre compared to 58 per acre just a few years ago.

Cherry production is on the upswing globally. China has increased its production almost fourfold since the mid-1990s, Long said. Cherry production in Chile is also on the rise, thanks in part to off-season imports into the U.S.

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 the overall 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.