In the late 1970’s an experiment was done on the campus of Utah State University. A group of food scientists along with some faculty, students and staff from the Horticulture department decided to see if they could dry some tart cherries. Their experiments were done in one of the ovens located in the food science department on campus. It was a very small experiment but yielded some very promising dried cherries. The group rolled them in white sugar and called them snow cherries. They began to hand out samples of these snow cherries around campus to see if the reaction to them was positive. It was.
Soon after, one of the professors from Utah State University attended a Payson Fruit Grower board meeting to introduce the “snow cherry”. Payson Fruit Growers was a fruit cooperative made up of several family farms. The primary purpose of the cooperative was to process and market tart cherries. I was a member of the board of directors at that time and was impressed with the dried cherries as were the other board members.
During this same period of time Payson Fruit Growers joined a marketing cooperative in Michigan called Cherry Central. Cherry Central is the marketing arm for several fruit processors and cooperatives and is based in Traverse City, Michigan. The drying of tart cherries had begun in Michigan with one of Cherry Central’s members experimenting with steam generated oven drying.
After seeing the possibilities of dried tart cherries from Utah State University, Payson Fruit Growers decided to explore the idea of drying cherries. The challenge would be to dry cherries in a commercial setting. Since Cherry Central was interested in drying cherries we decided to visit the one person drying cherries in that company. The Payson Fruit Grower board flew out to visit with this company. It turned out that they were having a difficult time with their drying process. They couldn’t get the dried cherries to a consistent moisture content with their steam ovens. This inconsistency was causing molding and product rejection in the marketplace. The company we visited did, however, have an extra oven that was not being used and agreed to sell it to Payson Fruit Growers. We thought we could alter a few things and make it work in our situation. During the next few months the new oven dryer was installed at Payson and drying cherries began in earnest.
It soon became apparent that the quality of the dried cherries were inconsistent similar to the problems that were being experienced in Michigan. We had originally thought that the dryer climate of the western United States might yield better results than what was being done in Michigan. Despite all of our efforts to dry the cherries to a consistent moisture level we could not get the product quite right. They were either very dry and hard or too moist with the possibility of mold growing in them. Payson Fruit Growers finally realized that we were not going to get a quality consistent product and we stopped the drying process. The equipment stayed in place for a while until room for plant expansion was needed and the drying equipment was either sold or scrapped.
A few years later red tart cherries had fallen on hard times. The prices were low, grower returns were almost non-existent and I began to wonder if we had really given the dried cherries a chance. I approached the board of directors at Payson Fruit Growers and suggested that we might want to try drying cherries again. My fellow directors would not sanction this idea. The previous attempt to dry cherries had been a negative and costly experiment and had simply wasted a great deal of money. They were adamant that drying cherries was not for Payson Fruit Growers.
I couldn’t stop thinking about dried cherries and began to wonder if it was possible at all to dry red tart cherries given the character of the fruit. I recalled a trip I had taken with one of my nephews a few years earlier to California. As part of that trip we went on a tour of prune and apricot dryers. I thought if anyone in the world knew about drying fruit the answers would be found in California. I began to make telephone calls and eventually was able to contact a man at U.C. Davis that was one of their dehydrating experts. His name was Jim Thompson. After several calls in which he assured me that tart cherries, even though they were problematic could indeed be dried. I decided to pack my family into the car and make a trip to U.C. Davis to talk to Dr. Thompson. I was instantly impressed with his willingness to help. He shared with me the basic philosophy behind dehydration of fruit. We spent several days in California and when I left to return home I had a plan for a prototype dryer that I was going to build.
The dryer that I built was a small tray dryer. It had room for three sets or stacks of trays that could be put into a drying area. It was fueled with a propane burner and had a large fan in place that blew hot air over and through the trays of cherries. After some experimentation with the small dryer I was astounded at the quality of the dried cherries. The only negative reaction to the product was that they were a little flat because they had to sit on the trays when drying. I was so excited I began to think that what I needed was several of these small type of dryers working at the same time. I took some of the dried cherries to the Payson Fruit Grower Board and they were impressed with the quality but were not convinced that the small dryer that I had built could become a commercial venture. As I began to contemplate building more of the dryers I decided I needed to address the flatness of the cherries. There had to be a way to dry this soft fruit without having them be so flat. One day I sketched out a drawing of a dryer with a continuous belt that was moving through a heated area with hot air passing over the fruit. I took my sketch to a friend of mine who owned a welding business and asked him if he would help me build such a dryer. He looked at the sketch and thought it looked a lot like an IQF (individually quick frozen) machine that he had repaired for another local processor. I decided to see if I could find that IQF machine. After several inquiries and much detective work I finally found a machine in Oregon where it was being used to freeze raspberries. I called the owner of the machine and he informed me that they had just discontinued the use of that machine and he had moved it out of his plant just two days before I called. This time I took my wife, my parents, and youngest son (a few months old) to Oregon. We arrived there and looked the machine over and decided it could be the beginning of a dryer that might be able to be remodeled into a tart cherry dryer. We bought it from the owner, rented a crane to load it on a truck and brought it home to Santaquin, Utah.
Once we got the IQF machine home in Santaquin, I began to rebuild it. I installed new doors, a burner, a large fan, new bearings, an exit belt and a lot of sheet metal to make it into a continuous belt dryer. I had to develop many new and different things that had not been thought of in drying fruit, such as a way to continuously wash the belts, variable speed drives and many other things. The work on the dryer took many weeks of building, a lot of thought, and a lot of experimenting.
Then came the big day to actually try some fruit on the new (refurbished) dryer. When the first fruit came out I couldn’t believe how plump and perfect they were. The color was bright red and the flavor was wonderful. This time when I showed the finished product to the directors at Payson, they too were impressed and supportive. Soon Cherry Central got the word of the successful drying operation and were very interested in the product. The Michigan drying operation was still struggling with inconsistently dried fruit and for a while we were the only drying operation in the country that was having any success with drying tart cherries.
During the next while we began to commercially dry cherries. These dried cherries were now being requested by many of the buyers of fruit. These buyers were continually asking for the western dried cherries, the ones from Utah. It wasn’t too long after that I decided to combine our efforts with Payson Fruit Growers and moved the dryer to Payson where the storage capacity could be utilized. It made good sense to have the dryer in close proximity with the freezing capacity that Payson Fruit Growers provided, since drying cherries would be an on-going and year-round project.
Payson Fruit Growers continued to use the dryer for a couple of years until demand was so great that another dryer needed to be built. This time we built the dryer from scratch and made it two and a half times larger. It was patterned after the original belt dryer I built and even looked exactly like it. Since those early days we have built eight of the new large size dryers and dry almost all of our red tart cherries grown in the co-op. This has translated into many millions of pounds dried annually.
I have always been grateful to have played a key role in the development of the dried cherries in Utah. It was challenging and rewarding to be a pioneer of this healthy delicious fruit. It was a great opportunity to create a piece of machinery that indeed was capable of producing such a fine product. Payson Fruit Growers since those beginning years has also been very supportive and has continued to develop and improve the drying process. The cherries grown in Utah have proven to be suited very well to the drying process. They are consistently of good quality, have higher natural sugars than other tart cherries grown in other parts of the country, and dry to a marvelous deep red color. They have become very well respected and accepted in the marketplace.
Now tart cherries are regarded as one of the new “super fruits” possessing health benefits that are being discovered and promoted throughout the world. Although they are still used in cherry pies, cheesecakes, and many other delicious desserts, over the past few decades the perception of tart cherries has changed from being just a dessert fruit to being recognized as a health food. Tart cherries have seen their way into trail mixes, other healthy snacks, and even being prescribed by doctors to relieve certain health conditions. It is gratifying to have been part of seeing them become a healthy, delicious dried fruit.
By Philip B. Rowley,
Pioneer of the dried tart cherry in Utah