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Originally published Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 6:11 PM

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Cherry farmers look for new growing techniques

It's time for the state's cherry farmers to adopt techniques that will make the industry more profitable and sustainable, says a Washington State University horticulturist.

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BUENA, Yakima County — Washington state cherry farmers expect their crop to continue to break records in the coming years, prompting a rethinking of harvesting techniques.

The Yakima Herald-Republic reported that the Pacific Northwest cherry industry harvested more than 23 million boxes of cherries in 2012.

Because of the expected growth, Washington State University horticulturalist Matt Whiting said cherry farmers can adopt techniques used by apple growers.

"We are looking for that next generation of orchard systems and what growers can do to become more profitable and sustainable," Whiting said.

Whiting organized a tour last week showcasing new tree-training systems for cherry growers — techniques their apple-growing counterparts have been using over a longer period of time. The aim is to marry the systems with rootstocks and cherry varieties that allow growers to become more efficient and boost their profitability.

The tour, which attracted about 50 growers, looked at three systems used by grower Ray Wolverton on orchards ranging in age from one to seven years. The most well-known of the systems is called "upright fruiting offshoots."

All three systems on the tour involve the Early Robin cherry variety, a blush variety similar to the more famous Rainier. Early Robin is rapidly gaining popularity among growers in the state because it ripens earlier and hits the market sooner.

The upright fruiting offshoots system trains the growth of the trunk and branches. Under the concept, the trees are planted at a 45-degree angle and the trunk is trained along a low wire. Branches grow vertically, taking advantage of a cherry tree's inclination to grow upright where the best fruit is produced. The system creates a wall of fruit, making pruning and harvest easier.

The systems use the dwarfing rootstocks to keep trees small and allow more trees per acre. Smaller trees make pruning and spraying easier and harvesting more efficient by eliminating the need for large ladders that have to be moved regularly.

Some of that increased efficiency likely will come in the form of mechanical harvesting, an advancement Whiting said could be a reality within the next few years. Researchers are using funding under the Specialty Crop Research Initiative in the 2008 federal farm bill to develop a harvesting technique that gently shakes the tree to release the fruit, which is then caught below the tree.

Whiting said among tree fruits grown in the Northwest, cherries are closest to being harvested mechanically because the harvesting method under review is less technical than what would be needed for apples.

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