Cold freezes Washington's cherry crop forecast

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldMay 13, 2013 

Recent frosts and freezes have slashed the forecast for Washington's sweet cherry crop.

Some orchards in Franklin, Yakima and Grant counties were among those hardest hit by the cold, which in some cases turned tiny cherries black.

Early cherry crop expectations of 24 million 20-pound boxes in the Northwest have dropped to 16 million to 18 million boxes, said Brianna Shales, communications manager for Stemilt Growers in the Tri-Cities.

Stemilt's cherries appeared to fare well during the cold, Shales said.

"The smaller crop means the best cherries are hanging on the tree, so quality will be fantastic this year, barring any additional weather events," Shales said.

In Walla Walla County near the Snake River, Mark Klicker of AOK Cherries said his 34 acres were slightly affected by frost.

Klicker was more fortunate than some farmers in the Pasco, Yakima and Milton-Freewater areas, who were hit harder, he said.

Still, he's expecting a slightly below-average or average crop, he said. Last year was a heavy crop year, and the trees tend to alternate a heavy crop with a lighter one. But this year looks to be lighter than the normal down year, he said.

Last year, Washington's sweet cherry crop broke records, with about 23.1 million boxes packed and shipped.

Washington is the nation's top grower of sweet cherries and grows about 80 percent of the crop in the Northwest, which includes Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah, according to the Washington State Fruit Commission. In 2011, Washington's cherry crop was worth $534 million.

Wine grapes appear to have made it past Mother's Day weekend -- when some say the danger of frost damage ends -- with a normal, minimal amount of damage from the cold spells.

And the recent heat wave means that wine grapes may be harvested up to two weeks ahead of last year.

Some grape vines already are forming the inflorescences that will become grape clusters. They look just like miniature clusters without the berries.

"We are right before bloom right now in our warm sites," said Jason Schlagel, director of viticulture at Milbrandt Vineyards.

Milbrandt Vineyards has about 900 acres near Mattawa and 1,200 in Quincy, and contracts with growers in the Prosser and Sunnyside areas.

Grape vines started off about 10 days ahead of last year at bud break, Schlagel said. But the above-average heat spike made the vines really take off.

"It could be a great vintage," he said. "So far, it's looking really bright, other than some of the frost that some growers experienced. The vineyards are progressing right ahead."

Apples also suffered some minor damage from the cold, officials said.

Ron Reimann of T & R Farms in Franklin County, which has about 100 acres of apples, is expecting an average crop at this point, he said.

They ran fans and water in the orchards to try to slightly increase the temperature, which plummeted to as low as 24 degrees. A few Granny Smiths were damaged, but nothing to worry about, he said.

"Thank God we didn't have cherries, because some of the early cherries took a beating," Reimann said.

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