Note from Rooted: If you ask Mark Zirkle what he does for a living he’ll say “I’m a farmer”. And he means it. What he probably won’t mention is that his family has been farming in the Yakima Valley since the late 1800s, and that they’ve built Zirkle Fruit Company into one of the most respected (and successful) agricultural operations in the northwest. As the president of Zirkle Fruit, Mark has fostered a philosophy of giving back to the community. Zirkle Fruit employees have distinguished themselves by their extraordinary volunteer and charitable efforts, with notable contributions to Selah Community Days, Relay for Life, Operation Harvest, ASPIRE and Toys for Tots. This is Mark’s first byline with rooted, and we look forward to hearing more from him and other community farmers!
As the long days of summer start warming the valley, there is a strange mix of excitement and trepidation that flows through many of the local orchardists. It is the arrival of the first major fruit that is harvested in the Valley and it is not for the faint of heart. Cherry harvest in Central Washington is unique compared to the many fruits, hops, grains and veggies that bless our valley.
At best it is a joyous, exciting and even fun event, the sweet juicy fruit is quickly picked, packed and shipped in the warm months and is over as quickly as it started for many growers and hopefully to a profitable end. At worst it is a nerve-wrecking, exhausting, weekend destroying, egregious grind, with rainclouds threatening and downpours wrecking the delicate berries, often just hours from harvest. It is all hand-picked and packed and interestingly, it is how many in this valley got their start in agriculture, usually on summer break in high school where thousands of temporary sorting and packing and inspection positions are needed for a few months.
Most consumers would be amazed at what it takes for the delicate, sweet and juicy cherries to get to market in good order. From the picker, the dark sweets are put into bin and hydro-cooled with freezing water–then inspected, where samples are pressure tested and inventoried until packing.The cherries are dumped in more water the clusters are cut and the cherries are singulated, sized and sorted, either by a small army of workers on conveyor belts or new optical graders, then placed in the appropriate package, many times in the middle of the night into a waiting truck to be carried to anywhere in the world.
It is the fruit that is coveted by many Asian cultures and the Yakima Valley is home to many of those inspectors in the summer months that spend their days in the capricious warehouses watching the river of fruit travel into boxes and trucks. The popular fruit is almost never an easy crop to predict and sell with confidence. Most other valley fruits are storage crops that can give order and transparency to marketing efforts…cherries…well not really ever.
Mother nature always has the last word, whether, wind, rain, heat, frost or even lack of pollination can drive both marketers and buyers nuts. It is the King Crab season of harvest, full of exhaustion and exhilaration that nearly everybody looks forward to starting, and later finishing.