CORVALLIS — Hannah Westly bit into the plump reddish-yellow Rainier cherry she'd just picked. "Mmm ... delicious. I think this tree is ready ... "
Beside her, Annie Chozinski bit into another cherry from the same tree. Chozinski is a faculty research assistant with the horticulture department at Oregon State University.
"She's testing to see how sweet it is," Chozinski said, after spitting out the cherry pit Tuesday.
"There are tests that can determine how sweet a cherry is, but when you have been out here as long as we have, we know how to discriminate."
Westly, 18, is one of four workers who enjoy the perks of harvesting cherries this summer at Oregon State University's research farm off Peoria Road. Tasting cherries is strongly encouraged.
For five years, 320 cherry trees have been growing in three tent-like tunnels on about six-tenths of an acre located in back of the farm. Each tunnel is 400 feet long, 30 feet wide, 15 feet tall and has a different colored roof to allow for different wavelengths of sunlight to hit the trees.
The elaborate setup is part of a research project by OSU horticulture professor Anita Azarenko. Its goal is to improve the Willamette Valley's cherry-growing industry using some innovative methods.
Growing in tunnels along with the Rainier cherries are Early Robin and a yet-to-be-named British Columbian cherry variety. All three varieties are known as blush cherries, and they seem to thrive out of the sun.
"The tunnels provide a warm and dry atmosphere for the cherries to grow in," Chozinski said. "It also allows us to control environmental factors. For example, we put bees in the tunnels to pollinate the trees."
Another advantage to growing cherries in tunnels? The birds can't pick the trees clean. An electric fence surrounds the entrance to the tunnels to keep other animals such as raccoons out.
The protection that the tunnels provide allows the cherries to ripen faster; they were harvested about two weeks earlier than orchard-grown cherries. In fact, the OSU cherries have been sold since June 15 at the farmers' markets in Corvallis held on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Chozinski said the tunnel-growing system could benefit smaller farmers because it would enable them to deliver cherries to markets early in the growing season, when the demand is high.
"You want to be the first on the market when the demand is starting," Chozinski said. "That's when the value of cherries is the highest."
For example, the OSU cherries are being sold at the farmers' markets for $6 a pound. Chozinski said that price could drop to $3 later in the season. She said she expects about 10,000 pounds of cherries to be picked from the trees in the tunnels.
Chozinski said the tunnel-growing system also is ideal for one- to two-acre orchards because the tunnels can be quickly dismantled during a storm.
"I don't think it would be possible for someone with eight to 10 acres of cherry trees to use this system," Chozinski said. "They wouldn't be able to take down the tunnels if a windstorm hit."
Protecting the Rainier and Early Robin cherries is particularly important because such blush cherry varieties bruise easily. Workers must pick these cherries by gently pulling the stems from the branches and filling padded buckets only halfway to prevent bruising.
The good news is that the workers can eat any cherries that get bruised. And believe it or not, all four workers said they aren't sick of cherries, despite being surrounded by them every day.
"We may be done with them at the end of the day," said OSU junior Taylor Westly, who is Hannah's older sister. "When we wake up in the morning, we get right back to eating them!"