WSU Prosser extension creating new cherry orchard system

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJune 5, 2012 

PROSSER -- Some sweet cherries will be shaken from their trees by a prototype mechanical handheld shaker instead of plucked by hand this harvest season.

It's one of the ways research being done at Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center in Prosser may radically change the cherry industry.

Researchers updated about 150 cherry growers, industry leaders and students on their research from cherry genetics to spraying chemicals on cherry trees Monday.

The WSU Prosser extension is in its third year of a four-year $4 million federal grant to create a new orchard system for cherries.

At the core, Matt Whiting, WSU associate professor of stone fruit physiology, said researchers are trying to help growers increase profitability and address labor issues. Labor for picking cherries is expensive, and Whiting said pickers are getting hard to find.

In the last dozen years, the number of acres devoted to growing cherries has doubled to about 35,000 in Washington, Whiting said.

As part of genetic research, Whiting said WSU is trying to identify cherries that will release from the stem when a tree is shaken without damaging the fruit.

Jianfeng Zhou, a WSU Prosser PHD graduate student, hooked a handheld shaker around a cherry tree.

Once a motor and the tool were turned on, the tool's metal arm moved in and out of the handle, shaking the tree and causing some cherries to fall in a catch basin created by a metal frame covered in fabric that surrounded the tree's base.

While some cherries bounced and fell to the ground, others came to rest in the catch basin.

And Whiting said WSU also is looking at whether the public will actually buy stemless cherries. After all, if people won't buy the fruit, it doesn't matter if it is more efficient and cost effective to harvest cherries that way.

And another study is looking at tree architecture to come up with a design that is simpler to prune and could be harvested by a machine, he said.

"We are pretty convinced that at some point in the future, we are going to be mechanizing cherry harvest," Whiting said.

On Monday, Whiting showed growers an example of the "upright fruiting offshoots" canopy architecture he's come up with.

The trees were planted at a 45 degree angle, and are pruned so that the fruiting wood is upright. Whiting showed attendees how the lateral shoots are pruned, leaving only upright shoots.

Whiting said WSU also tested machine pruning, hand pruning and a mix of the two on some of the upright fruiting offshoot trees and this year plans to collect data on yield and fruit quality from the trees.

Ajay Sharda, WSU Prosser post-doctoral research associate, demonstrated a conceptual design of infrastructure that may replace spraying chemicals in an orchard. When he turned on a motor, liquid was sprayed from nozzles connected to piping that hung over the cherry trees.

There is a lot of work to still be done on the study, which started this year. In addition to considering things like nozzle placement, he said WSU also will look into cost.

The goal is to increase accuracy of chemical application and worker safety, Sharda told growers. More information will be available next year.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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