Thursday, May 26, 2016

When cherry season looms, WSDA and industry go into prep mode

Kathy Davis 
Earliest cherries in Mattawa area, May 2016

It’s cherry time! What makes consumers treasure cherries – pop-in-your-mouth size and short-lived season – also makes processing, inspecting and shipping them a fast and furious venture. 

That’s why WSDA’s Fruit and Vegetable (F&V) Inspection Program and the fruit industry are serious about gearing up for each cherry season. For instance, staff in the East Wenatchee F&V office presented two refresher sessions on May 12 – one for industry representatives and another for permanent and returning seasonal inspectors. 

“It’s like a year’s worth of work in three months,” noted Kyle Thomas, who’s starting his fifth cherry season as an inspector. 

“It’s all about timing,” added Jebb Wheeler, F&V export co-supervisor. “When things don’t go well, tempers can get short.” 

Cherries around the world

Why are cherries so different? They’re small, fragile and highly perishable. And the brief harvest season compresses the timetable to get them from orchard to store shelf or shipped around the globe. 

In 2015, Washington state produced more than 19 million 20-pound boxes of cherries and exported about 30 percent. While China is the top recipient of this fruit, the state shipped to 38 countries. Each country has specific standards, covering permits, pest-free certifications, and even how containers are marked. Wenatchee staff presented information for nine countries from Australia to Taiwan, and the European Union. 

Melissa Reed has specialized in shipping for 14 years and currently works at McDougall & Sons, a packing facility in Wenatchee. How does she keep track of all the various countries’ requirements? “A lot of note-taking,” she laughed, waving her notebook. 

Melissa said she appreciated the WSDA workshop and the communication with F&V staff. 

“Everyone here is awesome,” she said, “and we get answers to our questions really quick.”
Eastern Washington cherries for sale at the
Olympia Farmer's Market 

Crushing for larvae

Pests are a big concern and can affect the quality of the cherry product and the ability to export. Last year, 398 samples were found to contain a total of 644 larvae, Jeff Farmer, Wenatchee F&V supervisor, said. The most common culprit was Drosophila, a genus of small flies often called “fruit flies” -- they accounted for more than 90 percent of the finds.

Crushing is one of the procedures used to identify pests. The process is to take a representative sample of cherries and run them through a machine that crushes the fruit down to the pit, Jebb said. The pulp is then soaked in a sugar solution which causes larvae to float to the top. 

Distinguishing between different insect types requires looking at the critters under a microscope. Having an internet-connected microscope to share views with the agency’s entomologist in Yakima has been a big help, Jebb said. 

“Most of the industry wants the option of shipping through California, which requires larger and more thorough crushing samples because they are concerned about these pests,” he said. 

Vigilance on pest infestation is one of the many areas where state inspectors and the industry work closely together to gear up for cherry season. And this year’s has begun – early. The Wenatchee office reported beginning inspections on May 19.