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From Our Tree to Your table - continued
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Harvesting Tart Cherries
Tart cherry harvest is an exciting time of year in northern Michigan. tart cherries are an extremely perishable and delicate fruit, and they ripen on a very short time schedule. For the cherry grower, this means being prepared and moving quickly when the time comes. Equipment is repaired, spare parts are kept handy, and crews are assembled in preparation for the big event.
If you visit cherry country in late June and early July you will start to see the shakers and other equipment being moved from farm to farm and readied for harvest time. Don't get too impatient if you get stuck behind us on the highway, as it is often the only way to get the equipment to the trees. The time you lose driving behind farm equipment is more than made up by the resulting convenience of low prices and easy availability of food later. (You never know, you might get hungry someday!)
A fleet of trucks, shakers, tractors and other equipment, and a veritable small army of workers are needed to get the cherries off the trees. The whole process, from tree to processing, lasts only a few days. When the cherries are ready, they are ready and we have to get in gear fast!
When tart cherries are ripe (usually in early July), they are harvested using a machine called a shaker. Shakers have taken the place of the old expensive hand-picking method, and have been a real boon to cherry growing. A highly specialized piece of equipment that costs over $100,000, this machine actually grips the trunk of the tree and shakes the tree to dislodge the cherries. The cherries fall off the trees onto a catcher, which is set at an angle to the shaker and allows the cherries to land gently and roll down to a mobile conveyer belt.
From the conveyer belt, the cherries are transferred to tanks of cold water. The tanks are taken to cooling stations where branches and leaves are flushed out with water, and where the cherries are cooled for four hours before being sent to the processing plant. The cherries are continually washed at the rate of 100 gallons of fresh water per minute. Tart cherries are extremely perishable, which is why you won't see fresh tart cherries in the supermarket, and why harvest is so time sensitive and labor intensive.
From the cooling station the cherries go to local small processing plants where they are sorted and pitted. After the pits are removed, the cherries are sorted and packed for distribution. Some of the cherries go directly to supermarkets in canned, frozen and dried forms. Other cherries are sold to manufacturers who use them to make pies, muffins, breads, ice cream, jam, juice and candy. And of course, some of them come right back to us as juice concentrate.
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