B.C. cherry packer provides tender, loving care

B.C. Tree Fruits Cooperative | Quick turn around is vital when handling and shipping a crop as perishable as cherries

KELOWNA, B.C. — The first bins of British Columbia cherries flowed into the packing houses by the end of June.

Cherries are perishable and must be handled with care, receiving individual attention as each one moves through a series of conveyors. Each is checked for splits, bruises and bird damage.

Cull rates vary from five to 35 percent, said Cam Stewart, manager of the B.C. Tree Fruits Cooperative’s packing plant.

Some culls can be processed into jam, so they are not a total loss. The rest probably end up in a landfill.

“As the quality standards go up, it means we have more sub-standard fruit that we have to deal with,” Stewart said.

The cherries first go through a machine with a series of knives that cut through the stems so that the cherries are individuals rather than clusters of two or three. The goal is to keep the stem green as an indicator of freshness.

They also go through a series of washes that sort them by size. The water is just above freezing to keep the fruit as fresh as possible.

Cherries do not float, but water is the gentlest way to move them through a series of sorting stations. They come in four sizes, with the largest fetching the most money.

Shippers used to place their cherries in neat rows on the top of a cherry lug, which looked like a rack from a Scrabble game. Cherries that could be placed 10 in a neat row were called “10 row,” while smaller cherries that could be placed 12 in a row were called “12 row.” A 10.5 cherry is one inch in diameter, while cherries are also classed as 9.5 row and 8.5 row.

The plant has a large cold storage unit, but the goal is to sort, pack and ship the fruit as quickly as possible.

Apples are handled in another section of the plant. Atmosphere controlled storage allows them to be packed through the year until the following June.

“We can store the fruit up to a year in storage and still be OK. It is not as nice as it is in October or even January, when we first open the rooms, but we can still put B.C. fruit on the shelf,” said Stewart.

“With cherries we don’t have that option. We have got to get them off the tree and into boxes as soon as possible.… We are looking at every angle we can to make sure that fruit gets out fresh, especially now that we are looking at exporting some it.”

A pilot project this year will export fresh cherries to China, either by ship or air.

“If we are shipping it over the ocean, we have to pack that fruit as fast as possible. If it is landing in China, we have to make sure that fruit is still edible,” he said.

“It’s a global market and you have to do a good job of it or you are not going to get a second chance.”

  • Apples: 275 million lb. worth $42 million
  • Cherries: 6.1 million lb. worth $7.6 million
  • Pears: 15.8 million lb. worth $3.8 million
  • Peaches: 12 million lb. worth $4.2 million
  • Apricots: 2 million lb. worth $830,000
  • Plums: 1.3 million lb. worth $327,000

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