Utah’s growing population could threaten cherry production

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Harvesting Utah’s tart cherry crop — the second largest in the country — is part physics, part mechanical ingenuity and a lot of wow.

It happens like this: Two large pieces of farm equipment sidle up on either side of a tree laden with cherries.

The driver of the first vehicle — a hydraulic shaker — pushes a button and rattles the tree trunk loosening about 130 pounds of cherries from the branches and creating a mini-red rainstorm.

The catch frame on the other side of the tree collects the fallen fruit, moves it along a conveyor and then into a bin filled with cool water.

Once all the “picked” fruit is safely in the bin, the two vehicles inch forward to the next tree.

Shake, collect, repeat.

The process continues for three hot weeks each summer — usually from mid-July to early August. Crews work six days a week, 16 hours a day until all the cherries are collected for processing, said fruit farmer Ray Rowley.

It’s grueling work but exciting, too, he said during a recent tour of his 1,000-acre Cherry Hill Farms. “It’s what we do.”

While cherries are as American as pie and President George Washington, most people don’t even realize there are two types of cherries produced in the United States — sweet and tart.

About 97 percent of the sweet cherries are grown in Washington, California and Oregon and are sold fresh to consumers through grocery stores and markets.

When it comes to Montmorency tart cherries, Michigan is the U.S. capital, producing more than 200 million pounds annually. Utah ranks second — albeit a distant one — averaging of about 30 million pounds of tart, or sour, cherries a year.

Final numbers for the 2018 crop in Utah won’t be in for several weeks, but Rowley believes it’s a “good crop” but probably not a record.

Most of the Utah tart cherries are grown along the Utah County foothills in and around Payson and Santaquin, where the elevation, the climate and the soil combine to help the fruit trees thrive.

Eight family farms — including Rowley’s — produce most of Utah’s tart cherries; together they make up the Payson Fruit Growers cooperative.

Years ago, most of the Utah tart cherries were turned into pie filling. But, in the 1990s, the co-op perfected the process for drying and packaging cherries for use in granola, trail mixes and other snacks. A small amount still goes for canning or is turned into cherry juice or juice concentrate.

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