At this Nikiski farm, a cherry-tree experiment blossoms

cherries in a high tunnel
Michael O’Brien walks down the center aisle of his high tunnel, which contains 90 cherry trees. (Riley Board/KDLL)

Michael O’Brien likes a challenge. That’s why O’Brien Garden and Trees in Nikiski is what he calls an experimental farm — he tries out different varieties of fruits until he figures out what works.

“Once I succeed, as my children always say, ‘Dad, you just figured something out, we could actually make some money.’ Well, that isn’t my intent. I enjoy the challenge,” O’Brien said.

His latest challenge has been a high tunnel containing 90 cherry trees. And it’s been so successful that this week, the farm posted a plea online for folks to come in with scissors and pick their own cherries at $9 a pound, since the farm is overgrown with the fruits.

O’Brien planted the first cherry trees in 2016. Without a blueprint of how to grow cherries in Alaska or which of the 1,000-plus U.S. varieties to choose, he experimented with 50 different kinds, all at once, in the hopes he would figure out which grew best in Nikiski’s cold and windy climate.

It turned out, they all did — and the plants have only been getting more productive in the years since. On Tuesday morning, O’Brien’s trees were lush with red, burgundy and yellow fruits.

cherries in a high tunnel
Cherries growing in O’Brien’s high tunnel. (Riley Board/KDLL)

“This is the best year that we’ve ever had, but that stands to reason,” he said. “Each year should be better than your previous year until you get up to your maximum production.”

O’Brien, ever experimenting, said he’ll need about three years of full production to determine which cherry varieties he’ll ultimately stick with. The most popular varieties among customers, he said, are Bing cherries, a variety of bright red sweet cherries, and Rainier cherries, a particularly expensive variety with a yellow exterior.

O’Brien said these aren’t the most delicious varieties he grows. But he knows they’re what customers are most likely to want.

“When people come and they want a variety, who are you to say, ‘Nope, that’s not the one you should be buying.’ If that’s what they want, then that’s what we’ll produce,” he said.

O’Brien said one benefit to opening the cherry grove to U-Pickers is that not all cherry varieties ripen at the same time. Customers can go through the high tunnel and choose the reddest, sweetest cherries themselves, leaving the under-ripe ones to finish ripening on the tree.

In addition to selling the fruits themselves, the farm propagates and sells whole cherry trees — including pie cherry trees, which bear more sour fruits that are used in baking. O’Brien’s pie cherry tree is laden with fruits, which stand out as smaller and brighter than many of the other varieties in the grove.

cherries in a high tunnel
Pie cherries at O’Brien Garden and Trees. (Riley Board/KDLL)

And not all varieties of cherry require the same growing conditions. Pie cherry trees aren’t as sensitive to the Alaska cold as sweet cherries.

“The reason they are in here with the sweet cherries is because when we do grafting in the spring, we graft these trees for people that can come in here and see that it is doable. And we can come in here without going across the snow to our trees that are outside,” he said.

O’Brien isn’t aware of any other commercial cherry producers in the area. But he said you can grow just about anything here if you have a high tunnel. High tunnels extend farmers’ growing seasons, protect plants from harsh weather conditions, and are easier to install than traditional greenhouses.

“These high tunnels are just absolutely wonderful for this state, where we can exceed the quality and flavor of anything that we can put in,” he said.

a high tunnel with cherries
O’Brien’s cherry high tunnel. (Riley Board/KDLL)

O’Brien said a program from the National Resources Conservation Service that provides financial assistance for farmers putting in high tunnels is one of the best things he’d ever seen the federal government do. In 2016, when O’Brien started his cherry experiment, more than half of the almost 700 high tunnels erected in Alaska were located on the Kenai Peninsula.

O’Brien’s hope is that more families will get their own high tunnels and explore putting in a variety of fruit trees, like plums, peaches, apples and cherries. Then, he hopes it becomes a family activity.

That’s how it goes on his farm. When O’Brien is done with a fruit experiment, he passes it along to his children for long-term care.

“That’s probably at least as important as the fruit in the tunnel itself. You get your kids involved and then the fruit just tastes all that much sweeter,” he said.

O’Brien’s trees will reach maximum production in about two years, when they reach around 9 or 10 feet. For now, he hopes U-Pickers heed his call — the cherries all need to be harvested before the weather starts to turn soon.

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