Can I grow organic cherries in the western United States?
Answer: Commercial organic cherry production presents many challenges. The cherry fruit fly, bacterial canker, phytophthora root rot, leaf spot, fruit cracking, late frosts, and brown rot of the blossom and fruit are all serious obstacles to the orchardist hoping to make a profit with cherries, particularly for the organic grower. Yet, despite these and other hurdles, organic cherry production is a profitable option for U.S. growers in much of the Northwest, and in the East, light can be seen at the end of the tunnel.As with most other tree fruits, the climate in the western United States is more amenable to production of organic cherries than is the more humid climate of the East. The problems mentioned above are present both East and West, but the higher rainfall and humidity in the East tend to magnify those problems. In fact, fruit cracking from rain?purely a physiological problem and not a disease in itself?plagues all eastern growers, organic or otherwise, and greatly favors commercial sweet cherry production in the West, where most production relies on controlled irrigation, not rainfall. There is some commercial sweet cherry production in the Northeast, but its scale is dwarfed by the production of the West. Additionally, northeastern growers have relatively few cultivars to choose from due to the propensity of cultivars like Bing to crack in the rain. In contrast, because tart cherries are not as susceptible to fruit cracking or brown rot as are sweets, they can be grown profitably in areas outside the arid West. In fact, tart cherry production is centered around the Great Lakes states, with Michigan being the biggest producer. Another climatic consideration is the chilling requirement. Cherries require a winter chilling period in order to break dormancy successfully and bloom. For most sweet cherries, the chilling requirement is more than 1,000 hours; for tart cherries the requirement is roughly 800 hours. This is one of several reasons why cherry production is not practical in warm, southern climates. There are a few cultivars with low chilling requirements, but they are not the important commercial cultivars. These low-chill cultivars can be problematic in areas with fluctuating wintertime temperatures, like the mid-South, where they quickly meet their chilling requirements and begin to bloom any time the weather is warm for a week or more, only to have the blossoms nipped by the inevitable return to cold.To learn more, consult the ATTRA publication Cherries: Organic Production, available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=460.This publication focuses on organic pest and disease control and other topics relevant to organic production of both tart and sweet cherries. It introduces the Canadian bush cherry and discusses climatic considerations for cherry production. Information on marketing is included, as are further resources and sources of trees and pest-control materials.