PROSSER -- The dark red cherry is so firm it resists a gentle fingertip squeeze.
With its plump size and yummy, sweet taste, it just may be the next cherry Mid-Columbia growers want in their or-chards.
The yet-to-be-named cherry is being considered for a fast-track breeding program at the Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Re-search & Extension Center in Prosser.
That would mean skipping years of testing in WSU's orchards in Prosser and going straight to testing in commercial orchards, said WSU cherry breeder Nnadozie Oraguzie.
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WSU's cherry breeding program restarted about five years ago when the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission joined together to recreate the program, said Jim McFerson, manager of the tree fruit commission. Money for the research comes from the assessments paid by Washington tree fruit producers.
They are looking for varieties that will perform better for Washington and Oregon cherry growers, McFerson said. Growers are using varieties developed a long time ago and not specifically for Eastern Washington conditions.
While Bing and other varieties are good and growers produce quality fruit, McFerson said, conventional breeding and genomics technology can create varieties superior in flavor, texture, storage potential, sugar and acid content, disease and pest resistance, and resistance to rain-induced cracking.
McFerson said they are hoping to cut the amount of time it takes for a new variety to hit the market down to 10 to 12 years.
Oraguzie said it can take 15 to 20 years to create a new cherry variety.
If growers decide to have Oraguzie fast track the cherry variety in August, trees will be ready for interested growers to plant by March 2014. Twigs with a lot of buds from the current tree will take about 18 months to grow together with a rootstalk in a nursery, Oraguzie explained.
"If it has a wow factor, you don't have to waste any time," he said.
Testing the cherry tree in commercial orchards is the final step, because at the end of the day, that is how the tree will be grown, Oraguzie said.
The variety, known by FR1T7, fits into Oraguzie's efforts to find an improvement on the Chelan cherry. FR1T7 refers to the tree's location in WSU's orchard.
The cherry, like other varieties that Oraguzie works with, is a cross between two commercial varieties. In the last year, he has started working on crosses of hybrids created by the WSU breeding program.
Oraguzie's goal is to create a portfolio of choices for growers. Chelan cherries are the earliest to be harvested in the area, and by being first on the market, growers can get a premium price.
But the size and firmness of a Chelan cherry isn't great, Oraguzie said. So one of his six objectives is to find a better cherry that is ready to harvest about the same time as Chelan cherries.
Firmness matters because if the fruit isn't firm, the taste won't matter to consumers, Oraguzie said. The sense of texture and taste go together.
And size is important to growers because cherries are sold based on weight, he explained.
The state department of agriculture said the value of the state's cherry crop makes it a top 10 commodity, totaling $367 million in 2010.
It boils down to having an early maturing cherry with better flavor and more consumer appeal, McFerson said.
The industry has some good mid-season varieties such as Bing, Sweetheart and Skeena. And while they could be improved, an early variety and an early blush cherry variety are what is needed, McFerson said. Blush cherries, like Rainiers, are yellow with some splashes of red.
Oraguzie said he is searching for an improvement on the Early Robin, another blush variety, that can be picked before Rainiers.
"I think it could do with being firmer and larger," he said.
When it comes to Bing cherries, Oraguzie said he is looking for a variety that is larger and firmer. It also needs to have reduced pitting and cracking, which causes cherries to be thrown away at the packing house.
Oraguzie is also looking for an improvement on Rainier cherries that come later in the season, firmer and larger.
As for Sweetheart cherries, Oraguzie is hoping to create a version that is resistant to powdery mildew, along with increasing size and firmness. Early varieties escape mildew, but Sweetheart is a later variety.
Oraguzie also is working to create a cherry that will easily loosen from its stem, allowing it to be harvested by the machines other researchers are working on.
Breeding cherries is brutal, and ones that don't meet the criteria are taken out of the program, Oraguzie said. It isn't cheap to care for the trees, so anything with a noticeable flaw goes.
Growers are hoping that there are some winners in the breeding program's advanced selections, McFerson said.
"The key is to test them thoroughly before they are commercialized," he said.
That way, growers know what to expect from the cherry, he said.
And with conventional breeding and DNA-informed breeding, McFerson said they can predict the performance of a cherry tree before they even see the fruit.
McFerson said they hope to create the best cherry breeding program in the world.
It's important for Washington cherry growers to be able to compete in a global market, McFerson said.
"This is a very progressive industry," Oraguzie said.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com