As one of Washington's most important agricultural commodities, cherries have been a socioeconomic staple since the 1850s, shortly after the first cherry trees were introduced to the Northwest by Iowa emigrant Henderson Lewelling. Washington is the most prolific producer of sweet cherries in the United States and the second most productive sweet-cherry growing region in the world after Turkey. Washington orchardists and agricultural scientists have created some of the most popular and sought after cherry varieties on the planet – the Bing and the Rainier. The industry has had cultural consequences for Washington, as the agricultural labor force has transformed the state's demographics and created a more diverse and heterogenous population. In 2020, cherry farming was the eighth-largest agricultural industry in the state, with more than 44,000 acres of working orchards and annual production hovering around $480 million.
"I cannot tell a lie ... I did cut it with my hatchet." That is what a young George Washington is rumored to have told his father after having chopped down one of the family's beloved cherry trees. Pleased by his son's honesty, Augustus Washington embraced the future first president of the U.S. in a moment of pride, declaring that George's sincerity "was worth more than a thousand cherry trees" (Weems, 14). Not only would George Washington become the namesake for the future state of Washington, but his historical and mythological connection to the cherry tree holds an important place in the folklore of the nation's founding and the morality of its founders. Coincidentally, Washington state has since become one of the world's foremost cherry producers and the most prolific sweet-cherry producer in the nation.
As an important aspect of the transatlantic Columbian Exchange, cherries first arrived in the Americas during the early seventeenth century along with Dutch colonists in what was then New Amsterdam (which would become New York in 1664). However, the cherry did not originate in Europe. It made its way to Western Europe via East Asia through the ancient Greeks and then the Romans who traded with Asian merchants for the seeds of the coveted tree fruit and were enjoyed by the more prominent citizens of both civilizations. The word "cherry" is derived from the Turkish region of Cerasus – once part of the Hellenic civilization – where the ancient Greeks produced their cherries almost exclusively. Turkey has since maintained its position as the world's leading cherry producer, followed closely by the U.S. thanks foremost to the unrivaled production of Washington's orchards.
The arrival of cherries to the Americas eventually democratized the tree fruit, but it would be more than 200 years after their introduction to North America before cherries would make their way out West. Prior to Washington becoming a premier cherry producer in the early twentieth century, Michigan held the title as the nation's main cherry-growing state. But once cherries, especially sweet cherries, arrived in the semi-arid high plains and humid coastal regions of Oregon and Washington, the optimum growing environment for cherry trees was discovered by settlers and the fruit exploded in both quality and economic significance.
The history of Washington cherries began decades before statehood was granted in 1889 and even before the creation of Oregon Territory in 1848. In 1847, Henderson Lewelling (also spelled "Luelling") and his family traveled from Iowa to the western portion of Oregon Territory by oxcart, bringing with them 700 various fruit trees, several of which became the first cherry trees ever planted in the region. Lewelling was not an orchardist by trade, but rather an enterprising nurseryman, maintaining his fruit trees long enough to sell them to orchardists for $1.50 per tree. In 1848, Henderson's younger brother Seth arrived in Oregon Territory to begin his own nursery business in partnership with William Meek, another Iowa nurseryman who had settled in the area. After years of success and subsequent expansion, Seth purchased Henderson's nursery in 1859.
Seth Lewelling's purchase helped to expand the growth of regional cherry orchards exponentially by cornering and centralizing the regional market. Helped along by the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which provided homestead claims to "white men or partial Native Americans" who had settled and worked the land within the territory before 1850, Lewelling's nurseries provided the first cherry trees to prospective orchardists throughout Oregon Territory. The act aimed to attract white settlement and increase land production – doing so with decidedly racialized language that omitted Black people and specifically aimed to dispossess the region's Indigenous people of their lands. As a result, fruit orchards, ranching, and grain farming became the most popular agribusiness ventures in the region among the early non-Native settlers.
Cherry Industry Stirs
As early as 1900, settlers had planted hundreds of cherry orchards throughout Washington. It quickly became a popular enough industry that Washington's cherry growers began forming co-ops and associations to market their produce, helping regulate both production, competition, and costs. When agricultural boosters placed ads in newspapers across the country to entice prospective orchardists to Washington, they often explained the truth about the level of patience and skill needed to become successful. "The person who is contemplating planting a cherry orchard," mentioned one such booster in a 1925 edition of the Kennewick Courier, "should make sure that he is fully informed ... and then be prepared to wait patiently for ten years for his orchard to come into commercial being" ("Cherry Raising is Specialty"). While 10 years may be an exaggeration, it can take a minimum of three to four years for cherry trees to mature and begin producing marketable fruit. The article demonstrates the weariness felt by Washington's cherry growers about welcoming the uninitiated into the industry, but it also evinces a desire to deter possible competitors and maintain high quality produce.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Eastern Washington was being recognized as the "home of the cherry." "Such cherries! Large, fine, and luscious," wrote John M. Stewart, a member of the Washington Nurseryman Association. "They are an eye-opener to any who have never seen them before" ("Puget Sound's Future"). And while the western and coastal portions of the state are focused on tart-cherry production and have been successful in doing so, sweet-cherry orchards in the central and eastern regions of the state made Eastern Washington one of the most productive cherry growing regions in the world by the 1930's. Wenatchee and Yakima have, for many decades now, been considered by experts to have produced some of the highest quality sweet cherries in the world.
Getting more people to populate the young state and increase Washington's agricultural production was an important task for any agricultural booster association, especially when there was money to be made selling parcels of land on which to grow. However, cherry growers in the state often took exception to dishonest advertising, knowing it would eventually degrade the quality of the cherries they produced, thereby decreasing their market value and possibly damaging the state's cherry industry altogether. Looking to future economic sustainability became an important element of Washington's cherry farming culture. Quantity has always been important, but Washington's cherry growers have gravitated more toward quality to maintain their brand. This has helped them corner both domestic and foreign markets.
Cherry Tree Growth, Climate, and Pests
The levels of patience and skill needed to succeed as a cherry orchardist are immense. Cherry trees have historically been difficult to grow and maintain, which is why they were such a desirable yet hard-to-find food in the centuries before the advent of agricultural science, pesticides, and commercial orchards. Cherries are particularly sensitive to the weather and are highly susceptible to pests, namely aphids, fruit flies, borers, and mites. Cherry trees can suffer from various forms of molding and transmittable diseases, most notably gummosis, canker, and rot. Birds also pose a major problem as they are not only attracted to the sweet fruit and can destroy crops in a matter of days, but they can also carry viruses and pests from orchard to orchard, spreading devastating plagues with ease. Too much moisture will introduce rot and too little moisture will weaken and starve the roots, leaving them susceptible to pests and disease. Combined with market vagaries, such problems expose the level of difficulty in becoming successful at cherry farming.
Cherry tree temperament is highlighted in the type of very specific growing conditions that are needed to maintain them. Cherry trees require a balanced mixture of both cool and warm weather. Sweet varieties thrive in relatively drier climates, while tart varieties grow better in locations with higher humidity. As with most fruit-bearing trees, early frosts are a good thing for cherry development; without them, their growth cycles are threatened. However, frosts that arrive too early or too late can ruin an entire season's crop. An unexpectedly late frost in May 1907 killed nearly every cherry blossom throughout the Palouse orchards, forcing growers to wait an entire season for their harvest. Such catastrophic crop failures led to new methods of orchard heating, usually by way of crude-oil-fueled heaters placed between trees or, in some instances, beneath tented trees. Orchard heating quickly became commonplace throughout Washington, and even with rising oil costs, growers began harvesting more bumper crops than ever before as a result.
Washington's sweet cherries grow predominantly east of the Cascades in regions where elevations are on average lower than 1,200 feet above sea level with arid/semi-arid climates. Sweet-cherry orchards are most abundant in the Wenatchee and Yakima valleys, Big Bend Country, and throughout the Columbia Basin – centralized predominantly around the cities of Yakima, Walla Walla, Wenatchee, Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland. The Yakima Valley is the largest sweet-cherry producer with around 12,000 acres of orchards. Wenatchee's orchard district holds around 9,500 acres, and the Columbia Basin contains approximately 4,500 acres. Aside from the optimum growing climate, access to the nearby Columbia and Snake rivers for cheaper irrigation and transportation, along with increased access to railroads and highways for shipping, have also played into Central Washington's dominance of the nation's sweet-cherry market.
West of the Cascades and in the coastal portions of the state, which usually experience a later frost season than much of the rest of the state where elevations are higher and cooler, the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, and the Olympic Peninsula are locations for productive tart-cherry orchards.
Washington's Most Popular Varieties
Sweet cherries such as the Bing, Ulster, Brooks, Royal Ann, King, Rainier, and Sweetheart are the most common cultivars grown in Washington. The most popular cherries are the ones that can be eaten with little to no processing required to make them palatable. When it comes to the more popular sweet cherries, Washington is the most productive state in the country, followed by Oregon and California, altogether combining for more than 90 percent of national sweet-cherry production. Following the Pacific Coast states, Michigan, Utah, and Wisconsin are the next leading cherry-growing states, although their production is focused almost exclusively on tart cherries. The tart cherries grown in Northern Michigan are what one would usually find in store-bought pies and require higher levels of processing, while Washington's sweet cherries are often eaten as is, or are processed into the ever-popular Maraschino cocktail cherry. The Rainier, Gold, and Royal Ann varieties are the most likely to become Maraschino cherries.
Washington's significance to cherry production stretches far beyond simply growing a greater quantity and quality of cherries than anywhere else in the country. In 1972, Washington State University (WSU) professor Dr. Harold Fogle created the Rainier Cherry cultivar at WSU's agricultural experiment station orchard in Prosser by successfully crossbreeding the Bing and Van varieties. The Rainier variety has since become one of the sweetest, most expensive, and most sought-after cherry varieties in the world. It is such a delicious cherry that roughly one-third of the state's Rainier crop is devoured by birds, who, not lacking in taste, seem to love the hybrid cherries more than any other variety. Even with netting or other deterrents, the loss is so great and so consistent that it is considered typical, and as such, most growers simply assume that saving two-thirds of a crop from cherry-eating birds is a normal crop yield.
The most popular cultivar grown in Washington is the Bing. Seth Lewelling is credited as having created the Bing cherry in 1875 by cross-pollinating the Black Republican (maternal) and the Royal Ann (paternal) cultivars. Named after Lewelling's foreman for his nursery's Chinese workers – a Manchurian immigrant named Ah Bing – the Bing cherry has been among the most widely produced cherry varieties since at least the early twentieth century. Bing cherries are a vast majority of all cherries grown in the state at around 23,000 acres according to 2020 estimates. In 2020, Bing cherries comprised over half of the approximately 44,000 total acres of cherry orchards in Washington. Much of the state's Bing crop finds its way to East Coast and overseas markets.
As one of the region's premier land-grant agricultural schools, WSU has played an outsized role in the development of Washington's cherry industry. With the work and ingenuity of Fogle and the many other professors and students working in Pullman and across the state at WSU's various experiment stations, Washington's cherry orchards have thrived through droughts and epidemics. WSU's efforts have extended the growing season, increased yields, eradicated the threat of certain pests, and vastly improved the quality of Washington's cherries. It is safe to assume that Washington's cherry industry would not be the success that it is without the regulatory assistance provided by the state government via WSU's Extension Service.
Orchard Labor: Picking and Packing
One of the most important aspects of cherry production is the time and labor needed to bring in the harvest and prepare the produce for market. Although there are technologies that make cherry harvesting more easily manageable, a majority of orchards in 2021 still rely on the traditional and far more affordable method of hiring hand-pickers to harvest their crops.
The hiring of migrant agricultural laborers has been in existence in Washington since the first orchards were harvested. Native Americans, Japanese, and white migrant workers were most often used to bring in the cherry harvests in the first decades of Washington's statehood. But by 1942, immigrant laborers from Mexico began arriving to the state with the introduction of the Bracero program (1942-1964), which was meant to offset the loss of "traditional" fruit pickers either called into service or otherwise detained in internment camps during World War II. In the first year of the Bracero program, Washington contracted with 15,029 Mexican nationals to work as agricultural laborers. Most came to work the fruit orchards in the Yakima, Wenatchee, and Tri-Cities areas.
Even long after the discontinuation of the Bracero program, Mexican and Central American migrant laborers have become the predominant group of cherry-pickers in Washington. The reliance upon these men, women, and children to help sustain the success of the cherry industry in Washington, and in fact nearly all fruit-growing industries in the state, is existential. It is due to the hard work and resourcefulness of both documented and undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America that commercial orchards thrive in any capacity. The significance of the Braceros and the Latinx workers who have arrived since then is undeniable, and a fundamental aspect of Washington's cherry industry.
Federal and state laws have, historically, provided more leeway to agricultural employers insofar as how their workers are compensated, and, more often than not, that has translated to wages far lower than those found in other industries. Resultingly, the United Farm Workers union has become influential as the primary advocate for Washington's cherry pickers. However, due to the residency status of many of those workers, joining the union is fraught with complications, which further perpetuates the culture of low wages and unsafe working conditions that many deal with – especially since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the reliance upon migrant immigrant workers can be viewed as socioeconomically problematic, it has ultimately helped to dramatically diversify the population of Washington. In a state and region where a majority of its residents are white, the agricultural labor industry has enabled a demographic shift over recent decades. In Pasco, for example, the Hispanic-identifying population is, as of 2020, nearly 60 percent.
Aside from the arduous task of picking cherries, the next most important step in the process is packing. Cherries are small, soft, and easily damaged if they are not packed with the proper amount of care. Wholesalers and retailers do not give their business to a producer if they are selling cherries that have become damaged from careless or improper packing. With so much competition, both regionally and globally, only the best cherries – in both taste and appearance – can net the best prices. Because of the delicate nature of the cherry, the packing process has always been an important final step before growers ship their produce to market.
In the early days of the industry, Washington's packers utilized the traditional hand-packing technique, placing cherries into individual cups to help protect them from the weight of other cherries placed on top of them – a slow process indeed. While automated cherry-packing technology has existed since as early as the 1890s, it was far too expensive for most growers or packers. But, from the 1940s through the 1960s, as automation became more affordable for growers, orchard operators increasingly replaced the traditional hand-packing process with machines and industrial cherry packing became much more of an automated process. By the 1960s, it was a rare sight to witness traditional hand packing of cherries as machines had, with some exceptions, come to displace the individual cherry packer altogether.
Through economic downturns, a rapidly changing climate, historic droughts, and increasing economic competition, Washington cherries continue to maintain their significance to the state's economy. New cherry orchards are still being planted and existing ones are being expanded, although not at the same pace as in years past. As long as Washington remains the prime growing environment for cherries, and as long as WSU maintains its experiment stations, the industry will continue to be as important in the twenty-first century as it was during the territorial days – perhaps even more so.
Cherries have not only helped to make Washington an agroeconomic success, but they have helped to change its face and culture. Cherries have provided sustenance for thousands of orchardists, their families, and the workers who pick them. Washington's cherry experience – be it through agriculture science, new technologies, or commercial improvement – has not only been a boon for the state itself, but it has also helped shape and evolve a global industry that millions of people around the world have come to rely on.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.