Jackpot year for cherries in Washington

Columbia Basin HeraldJuly 15, 2014 

cherries detail

B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington Fruit Commission, said this year’s near-record cherry crop has been selling fast.

TRI-CITY HERALD FILE

— Farming can be a little like gambling. Sometimes a farmer or grower comes up snake eyes, the victim of bad weather or a bad market. But sometimes they hit the jackpot.

With the 2014 cherry season, growers have pulled the handle and hit the jackpot. At least so far.

Estimates put the Washington sweet cherry crop at about 21 million to 22 million boxes, just short of the record for the biggest crop ever (23 million boxes in 2012), Washington Fruit Commission President said. Near-record crops aren't necessarily a jackpot, but in 2014 cherries are selling almost as fast as they are packed.

"Prices are very, very good," Tim Evans, of Chelan Fresh, said, which sells cherries for growers throughout central Washington. "We have very strong demand," he said.

In part, that's because the fruit is very good. "It's been a vintage crop," Evans said, with great big, flavorful fruit. "They (the cherries) look good everywhere," Thurlby said.

"Really good fruit sells well," Evans said. "Really good cherries sell themselves."

Growing conditions were excellent, with relatively little frost and rain damage, Tim Smith, tree fruit specialist for WSU-Chelan County Extension, said. Even the market timing was good -- Washington cherries started entering the market just as California's crop sold out, said Karen Lewis, tree fruit specialist for WSU-Grant County Extension.

"Sometimes things just don't go bad," Smith said.

By July 7, cherry packers had shipped about 13 million boxes of cherries, Thurlby said. "Never have we shipped 13 million boxes this early in the year," he said.

Export sales account for about 30 percent of the market, he said, and in 2014 the export market is ahead of average. "The most exciting and shocking (export market) so far is Korea," he said. Sales to Korea could break the record of 600,000 boxes, he said.

Traditionally, July 4 is about the peak of cherry season, Thurlby said, and traditionally sales volumes slow down during the July 4 holiday. But that wasn't the case in 2014, he said.

"Most of the people I've talked to are oversold," he said.

Good fruit sells, but growers and marketers have applied the lessons learned as cherry production has increased. "We've all learned how to market cherries with these 20-million-box crops around," Evans said. In addition, "we're producing a better cherry," Lewis said, the fruits of improved root stock and more capital investment from growers.

Traditionally, the dark red Bing cherry has been the dominant variety, Lewis said, with red-and-yellow Rainier cherries the second-biggest seller. "Bing was king and Bing is still king," Lewis said. But other varieties -- Lapin, Sweetheart, Chelan -- are making an impact on the market, she said.

Smith said the very hot temperatures forecast for this week are "a bit worrisome," since the hot weather will speed up maturity. But so, far it's been a very smooth harvest, he said. "That's my message to the growers -- keep it up," Thurlby said.

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