Idaho Cherries: Delicate, Delectable and In Season
Every June, I anticipate the arrival of one of Idaho’s first ripe fruits: cherries.
Growing up in Boise, I plucked fresh cherries from my grandmother’s huge tree and reveled in her cherry syrup. I drizzled it on biscuits and pancakes, and used to sneak into the kitchen for small sips of syrup when Grams wasn’t looking. I always associated perfect cherries with my grandmother’s green thumb, but I now know Southern Idaho’s climate is ideal for cherry-growing.
Although Idaho is the fifth biggest cherry-producing state in the country (and the first globally for sweet cherries), many of the state’s historic small orchards have disappeared. Large commercial farms in Canyon, Washington, Payette and Gem counties make up the majority of cherry exports—century-old orchards like Symms Fruit Ranch and Williamson Orchards and Vineyards near Caldwell carry the state for cherry production.
But some smaller orchards still grow immaculate cherries for locals: companies like L&D Organics in Emmett, Waterwheel Gardens in Emmett, Cabalo’s Orchards in Kuna and T&M Orchard near Twin Falls all supply farmers markets and a few local grocery stores during the short cherry season, mid-June to mid-July.
A Ripe History
Orchards once flourished in the Emmett Valley, which was called “The Valley of Plenty” according to Larry Lombard of L&D Organics, who has been growing cherries in Emmett since 1997. Beginning in the late 1880s, an assortment of fruits and vegetables were grown for miners in the Boise Basin, Idaho City and Weiser.
In 1902, the railroad came to town and brought refrigerated cars, creating the opportunity to expand the varieties of fruit grown to include cherries. Kurtis Williams of Waterwheel Gardens said 100 boxcars of fruit left Emmett every day at that time. The mines closed in 1906, reducing the need for local fruit. But in 1924, the Black Canyon Dam was built to the northeast on the Payette River, and an intricate system of canals began irrigating Emmett’s orchards to grow fruit for export.
Chan Cabalo of Cabalo’s Orchards in Kuna recounted stories of WWII internment camps filled with German POWs who would work in the orchards. At that time, the Treasure Valley was thick with cherry, prune and peach orchards that supplied fruit to soldiers. These and other orchards around the state largely disappeared when commodity markets started demanding grains.
Half a century later, an influx of huge fruit farms in Washington state, coupled with increased imports from China, caused many small Idaho orchards to disappear. Big corporations like Tree Top and Albertsons started sourcing cherries from more economical ventures outside of Emmett.
“This left the locals without a market,” said Williams. “People put a lot of their eggs into one basket.”
Many farmers were left with little choice but to sell their orchards for development.
Sweets and Sours
Today, there are still a handful of small-scale cherry orchards in Idaho. And the popular sweet varieties they grow—Bing, Rainier, Royal Ann, Stella and Lambert—are a hot commodity when they're ripe. Sweets are best eaten fresh, dried or juiced. Rainiers are ideal for making maraschino cherries.
You can find these classic sweet cherry varieties at farmers markets in Boise, McCall, Ketchum and Hailey, as well as at the Wood River Sus tainability Center in Hailey, through Idaho’s Bounty and on the menu at many area restaurants. Some less-known varieties from Cabalo’s Orchard like Index, Black Republican, Blackgold and Selah—each of which ripens at a slightly different time—are available at the orchard, at Vogel Farms Country Market in Kuna and through Idaho’s Bounty.
The demand for tart or sour cherries plummeted for years, but people are rediscovering traditional recipes and have once again been asking farmers for these cherries. Tart cherries are best in baked goods, like pie and cobbler, and are also excellent dried. A true cherry pie has a tart bite that is balanced with just a little added sugar. The small Montmorency cherry, grown by most Idaho cherry farmers, is the quintessential tart cherry, though some argue that North Star cherries are tastier. Cabalo’s Orchard has both varieties, while Waterwheel Gardens reserves the Montmorency for homemade jams.
Mike and Tanya Oveharenko of T&M Orchard near Twin Falls are raising a number of Carnelian cherries—powerfully tart, hearty cherries that originated near the Black Sea. They are traditionally grown for medicinal reasons, like curing hemorrhoids, and the seeds are full of vitamins and minerals. These early-blooming Carnelians start in September, don’t freeze during the winter and ripen in February or March. These cherries are hard to come by and tend to sell out, mostly to the Oveharenko’s Bosnian and Ukrainian neighbors, who covet the Carnelians, especially the Sunrise, Red Star and Yellow varieties.
While the Oveharenko’s are planting ancestral-European varieties of cherries, other farmers are experimenting with European-developed growing methods. Cherry trees are finicky when first planted—they need constant attention and water for the first couple of years. After that, they grow heartily, but still don’t produce fruit for several more years.
The Cabalo’s have adopted the tall spindle growing method, which is relatively new to the United States and extremely efficient for production. Basically, a trellis system dwarfs the trees and grows the buds (not the branches), which produces more fruit. The trees remain closer to the ground, creating an ideal U-pick situation that is also easy for machine harvesting. Normally, most cherry trees grow so tall that the cherries are difficult to access safely.
In 2014, Cabalo’s put in 125 new sweet cherry trees, which they hope to open for U-pick in the summer of 2016.
Preserving the Harvest
Cherries are best when eaten ripe, but not too ripe.
“You have to leave them on the tree long enough,” said Cabalo. “Be patient. That extra week makes the flavor amazing.”
Small-scale farmers net their trees to keep the moths and birds away (birds know exactly when cherries are a week away from perfection). In large-scale operations, cherries are often picked before their tasty prime.
If you have a cherry tree at home, picking and preserving the bounty can be a laborious, but worthwhile, undertaking. Cherries are delicate, so processing must be structured: Pick them in the morning before it’s too hot (both for the picker and for the cherry), then process that afternoon. Cherries have to be transferred immediately to a cool place or they’ll get smashed. If stems are removed too soon, the cherries will bruise.
A cherry pitter is key for preservation: first pit, then arrange the cherries on trays, and finally, freeze or dehydrate. Or you can can make jam to spoon atop yogurt or ice cream. For juice, no pitting is necessary if you have a steam-juicer. Whether you can the juice for drinking or use it to make cherry syrup like my grandma used to make, I implore you to take the time to revel in Idaho’s short, delectable cherry season.
Emmett Cherry Festival
Since the 1930s, thousands of people have flocked to Gem County every June to kick off the summer at the Emmett Cherry Festival, which runs this year from Wednesday, June 17, to Saturday, June 20. If Mother Nature cooperates, the festival’s featured cherries will hail from 12 local cherry orchards.
Last year, farmers sold out of every single ripe cherry. Bring your buckets and some extra time, because a number of the orchards are U-pick. Some popular events celebrating the ripe fruit include the Pie Eating Contest, which draws everyone from young children to seniors; the Pit Spit, held on the courthouse steps with a nine-time reigning champion to beat; and the Great Cherry Bake-Off, where the winner will take home the title “The Cherry on Top.” Events begin around 11am and last until dark; the majority of them are held in the City Park on Main Street.
The festival also features a carnival, 126 craft booths from across the country, 21 food vendors (some of whom incorporate cherries into their dishes), a lineup of live music, a car show and an art competition. Saturday, June 20, boasts the majority of events, including the Kiwanis Breakfast and Fun Run, the Fireman Hose Competition and the Cherry Festival Parade, which takes place later in the evening.
This year will be the 81st Emmett Cherry Festival. Visit EmmettCherryFestival.com to download a festival map and a schedule of events, and also to sign up for various competitions. Make sure to arrive early to find a parking spot.