Why Does Everyone Want Our Fruits?
Taste, quality, and freshness: What makes Washington’s fruits such a big hit with markets around the world?
EVERYONE KNOWS THAT WASHINGTON is the apple capital of the world. But did you know that Washington is also the cherry capital of the United States? Actually, while we're at it, did you know that Washington produces more pears than any other state? Wait, don't forget blueberries — we're No. 1 in blueberry production! Washington produces approximately 90% of the nation's frozen red raspberry crop, too!
Sure, the Evergreen State is known for producing huge amounts of just about every crop under the sun, but it seems like fruits in particular are likely to flourish here. Washington is a veritable cornucopia of fresh fruits — and not just when measuring quantity. Washington's exported fruits are prized around the world for their taste, quality, and freshness.
But why does this place produce such prized fruit? The answers are surprisingly complex.
First, we must define what quality means when discussing fruits. Every fruit has different characteristics that are sought after by grocers and importers, but there are a few universal priorities.
First is size. In the fruit world, you might not say that bigger is always better, but you might say that bigger usually means healthier. For nearly all fruit trees or bushes, the healthiest plants often produce the largest fruits. In Washington, it's not uncommon to find apples with a diameter of 3.5 inches and weighing over 14 ounces. In other countries of the world, where apples seldom grow heavier than 5 ounces, such a fruit would cause a commotion in the grocery store.
"Our new varieties of apples often make a very nice fruit size and also have a really nice color," said Scott McDougall of Legacy Orchard in East Wenatchee.
The next characteristic of high-quality fruit is shape and color. Most home gardeners are familiar with the sensation of picking a tomato that looks deformed or pulling up a carrot that looks like it's not sure what a carrot is supposed to look like. The same thing happens with fruits, which can certainly be a turnoff for potential buyers. For many Washington fruit growers, producing uniform fruit begins with planting only the best varieties, along with meticulous care to make sure each tree or bush experiences prime growing conditions. When consumers see fresh fruit on grocery shelves, they are getting the best available at that price point. And every fruit harvested, uniform or not, is put to good use for consumers. Washington growers have many different ways to use their misshapen fruits. For instance, nonuniform apples are often pressed into apple juice and applesauce at processing facilities throughout the state, and misshapen raspberries are often turned into jams, jellies, and fruit preserves.
Another important characteristic is firmness, which is usually closely associated with freshness. When fruits are picked at their freshest, the clock starts ticking to get that fruit onto someone's plate — and if that process takes too long, the fruit won't be fresh or firm. Fortunately, Washington has an efficient transportation system to move fruits using trucks, trains, river barges, oceangoing cargo ships, and more. Blueberries and raspberries are often flash frozen within just a few hours of harvest to preserve maximum freshness.
Many of the sweet cherries that are harvested in Central Washington are loaded onto a refrigerated Boeing 747 the same day they're picked, and they are flown directly to Southeast Asia, where they're prized as a delicacy. The Washington cherries that reach the night markets in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, are fresh and firm, having traveled around the world in 72 hours.
"I think it's great for the industry, because it helps deliver a great cherry to the customer on the other end," said Bryan Peebles, export manager for Chelan Fresh. "If someone gets a great cherry, they're going to buy more."
Last but not least, taste may be the most important characteristic of all — and taste is where Washington fruits shine the brightest. Of course, the first place to start is with climate and soil conditions. Eastern Washington climate and soils are perfect for tree fruits, while Western Washington conditions are just right for berries. Much fruit flavor depends on the specific varieties that are planted: Golden Delicious apples will have a different flavor than Cosmic Crisp, for instance. And Washington fruit farmers are meticulous about growing the most flavorful varieties, working closely with scientists at Washington State University to develop new varieties all the time.
In addition to the work of the farmers, all Washington fruits benefit from naturally occurring phenomena that create intense flavors. First, the sweetness of a fruit is directly impacted by how much sunlight it receives — too little sunlight, and it won't develop enough sugars. Too much sunlight, and it will "sunburn" and ripen too quickly. Because of the far-northern latitude of Washington's orchards and berry fields, the fruits experience some of the longest summer sunlight hours of any growing region in the country — a true "Goldilocks" region for growing apples, cherries, pears, blueberries, raspberries, and more.
That northern latitude also means that summers in Washington produce one of the most pronounced diurnal shifts in the country. "Diurnal shift" is a term popularized in the wine industry, referring to the shift from high daytime temperatures to low overnight temperatures. A larger temperature swing helps develop acidity in fruits — and Washington's diurnal shift is more drastic than anywhere else in the country.
When you combine that sweetness with that acidity, you get fruits that are delightfully balanced to the taste, enhancing complex flavors that customers love. Next time you travel, keep your eyes peeled for those Washington fruits that are so beloved that they're in demand all around the world.