Cherry season winds down

McMullin cherries
Workers at McMullin Orchards examine the cherries to make sure of their quality before they are frozen, pressed for juice or otherwise processed.

PAYSON – Apples, nectarines, pears, peaches and pluots are coming on, but cherry season has run its course for the 40 or fewer orchardists in southern Utah County.

McMullin Orchards was started in 1927, when Robert Wallace McMullin planted sweet cherry trees. The property has grown to about 900 acres in production, on three sites. Grandson Robert McMullin is “boss-man,” Plant Manager Carl Butler told Serve Daily.

McMullin Orchards is neither the oldest nor the largest orchardist in southern Utah County, McMullin said. Allred Orchards in Provo is another; it started in 1926. Allred added a farm in Payson in 1957 where it planted peaches, apples, sweet and tart cherries.

Serve Daily stopped in at McMullin Orchards’ warehouse recently to view its harvesting operation. Bing cherries were harvested about the last week of June each year, Butler said. Within one week, they were all gone – shipped to major suppliers or all gone from area fruit stands.

The tart cherry season lasts three weeks, but it too was winding down the last week of July.

When the cherries come in, they’re poured into thousand-pound buckets of cold water. The buckets’ contents then are poured into a cleaning machine. People on the other end sort through the cherries as they come out on a roller bed that shakes off excess moisture and spreads out the cherries on a single layer. Early in the season as many as four lines are running.

This late, workers on the one remaining line eye-check the cherries before they’re sent to be individually frozen – a process that takes less than 15 minutes when the freezer is set to 55 degrees below zero – after which they’re weighed in 40-lb. boxes and readied for shipment.

McMullin Orchards harvested about 12 million pounds of cherries in 2015 and ’16, though projections are this year will be a bit less, Butler said.

“Weather’s probably a big factor,” the plant manager said, adding that he is unfamiliar with the growing side of the business. “It changes every year. Whatever the Lord sends us, we accept.”

Factors that help orchardists in southern Utah county: A climate that is generally moderate during the growing season – somewhat sheltered by the mountains on either side of the valley – good, if somewhat rocky soil and nearby access to easily-regulated irrigation water from Utah Lake, so trees are watered consistently but no more than needed.

“The McMullin family and valued employees take great pride in cultural practices designed to assure the freshest, highest-quality and best-tasting fruit we can offer,” according to its website: mcmullinorchards.com.

McMullin’s 300 employees – mostly seasonal – work until the October, flowing through each of their fruits as the harvest seasons roll on.

Big M Frozen Storage in Payson, a subsidiary of McMullin Orchards, offers 21,000 square feet of frozen, cold and dry storage, where it can hold frozen fruits until suppliers are ready for it.