Oregon’s Cherry Industry

Although cherries can be found throughout the Willamette Valley, the majority of Oregon’s cherry crop is tucked in the shadow of Mt. Hood on hillsides overlooking the Columbia River. The mountain blocks most of the rain that blows in from the west, protecting the cherries from weather that would otherwise split and soften the fruit. Although there have been cherry orchards surrounding The Dalles for generations, the industry has changed and so have the cherries.

For one thing, there’s more profit in fresh cherries now. A generation ago, the industry centered on the sugary, lipstick-red concoction called the maraschino. Not a pick-from-the-tree variety, the maraschino was originally created from marasca, a small black cherry that grew wild on the coast of present-day Croatia. To preserve them, the ancients pickled the cherries in seawater then marinated them in a liqueur made from the marasca’s juice and pits. A taste for the marinated marascas soon drifted beyond the Croatian shores, and variations on the original recipe flourished.

By the early 1900s, maraschinos were decorating cocktails and topping ice-cream sundaes and glazed hams. But they were still made with European cherries because it was said that American cherries were just too soft.

Then came Ernest Wiegand, a horticulturist who joined the faculty of Oregon Agricultural College in 1919, who labored for a decade to perfect a new maraschino cherry made from Oregon’s Royal Anne cherries. The secret, it seems, was in the brine. The Croatians had used seawater; so Weigland added a dash of calcium salts to firm the cherries and a dash of almond extract to simulate the taste of the marasca pits.

Processing maraschino cherries became a big industry in Oregon during the mid-20th century. The nation’s two largest maraschino manufacturers are still located in Oregon. But tastes change, and demand has softened for the maraschino cherry.  In response to customer demand and perception the industry has adapted to use more natural colors and flavors in their process.

Today, many Oregon growers are tearing out their Royal Annes and replanting with fresh sweet cherry varieties that are high in demand in export markets in Asia and Europe.

Northwest sweet cherry production continues to grow. The Oregon cherry industry has experienced a 14% increase in sweet cherry bearing acreage over the last decade, going from 11,000 acres to 12,500 acres.  During that same span, the tart cherry bearing acreage has been cut in half, going from 1,300 acres to 650 acres.  The total value of production varies from year to year as cherries are an alternate bearing crop.  That is, there is usually a large crop one year followed by a smaller crop the next year before returning to a large crop year.  The total sweet and tart cherry value of production for Oregon has a 10 year average of over $46,800,000 and 5 year average of over $55,700,000.