The pickers set out at 5 a.m. Even in July the sky is still dark, the orchards are peaceful, and the ground is damp with morning dew. In that first hour the sun will scatter pink veins across the eastern horizon as each of 30 pickers collects three buckets of one of the most delicate fruits in the world: the Rainier cherry.
It is a race against time. By noon it is too hot and picking must stop at Orchard View Farms in The Dalles, Ore.
In the past decade, the Rainier has grown from niche fruit in the Pacific Northwest to one of the most popular - and priciest - cherries in the world. Since Washington State University scientist Harold Fogle first crossed two sweet, red varieties, the Bing and the Van, in 1952, the resulting soft, sweet blush of the Rainier - which gets its name from the monarch mountain of the Cascade Range - has become popular as far afield as Britain, Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Growing cherries is a fickle business, but growing the fragile Rainier is downright risky. Their unusually thin golden-red skin bruises easily, and harsh weather, soaring temperatures, or hurried picking can ruin an entire crop - thus the price tag, which can reach $40 per 15-pound box. (The Bing cherry, by contrast, tends to bring about $10 to $15 per 15 pounds.)
The United States is the largest Rainier cherry producer, with Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah leading the pack, says David Severn, promotion director for the Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima, Wash. The cherry is also grown in a few other states, most notably California and New York; and a small number of Rainier cherry orchards can be found in Canada and Chile.
Although a season's harvest can vary dramatically depending on precipitation in the short growing season (pruning begins in April and picking ends in late July), production of the cherry over the past 15 years has exploded, reflecting swelling demand worldwide, according to Northwest Cherry Growers figures. Until 1994, some 40 years after the Rainier cherry was bred, domestic tonnage did not exceed 2,000; last summer, that figure had quadrupled to more than 8,000.
Bridget Bailey, vice president of 1,500-acre Orchard View Farms in northern Oregon, allows only her best pickers to handle the Rainiers. During the height of the picking season - which usually falls about July 4 - she employs some 600 cherry pickers, only a few dozen of whom work with the delicate fruit. "They're paid $4 a bucket, and a good picker makes more than $100 a day," Ms. Bailey says. "They get paid more than the other kind of cherry pickers so they can go slowly and be more careful."
Because the fruit is so delicate, the color, size, and sweetness of those that make it to market must adhere to strict standards. In Oregon, those standards are enforced by retailers; in Washington, those standards are enforced by the state. "Rainier cherries are very delicate - hard to pick, hard to pack, hard to deliver ... and people prefer not to eat a fruit that shows bruises," Severn says.
Pickers wear small white totes in which they place the cherries. They place the totes into bins in a pickup trailer every time they pick 20 pounds. The goal is to get the fruit to the trailer no more than 30 minutes after it's been picked, to prevent bruising from the heat. By the time they are loaded onto trucks, each cherry has, ideally, been handled just once - the moment it was plucked from the tree.