The first Washington cherries will be hand picked this weekend in what is shaping up to be a record early year.
While cherries have been harvested in May before, it’s rarely been this early, and it hasn’t been anything close to the volume farmers are expecting to have ripe and ready for consumers this month.
The unusually warm winter and spring has pushed cherry harvest ahead by seven to 10 days, growers say. Some organic Chelan cherries likely will be picked this weekend in Mattawa, said Brianna Shales, Stemilt Growers communications director.
Some orchards in Milton-Freewater also might start this weekend. Some early variety cherries are ready, but growers are giving them an extra few days on the trees, said James Michael, the Washington State Fruit Commission’s vice president of marketing.
But harvest won’t really start until the middle of next week, when orchards in the Tri-City area also will start picking Chelan cherries.
“We are going to have a slow start,” Shales said. “We like to wait until the fruit is ready to pick it.”
Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee, which produces about 15 percent of the state’s cherries, expects to see a slightly smaller crop than last year, but Shales said they are anticipating that will help create large, high quality cherries.
People tend to prefer cherries that are larger than a quarter, said Pat Sullivan, a Pasco cherry grower.
“It looks pretty promising at this point,” said Sullivan, who probably will start harvesting next week.
Overall, Northwest farmers are expecting to see a smaller crop than last year’s record of 23.2 million boxes. Current estimates put this year’s crop at just under 20 million boxes, Michael said. The Northwest includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
Having weather so far off of the average pattern makes everyone nervous. But there is excitement as well, Michael said.
“It’s going to be a really quick season,” he said. Many growers are expecting to be done picking by mid-July, with a few that may be in the orchards until Aug. 10.
To put it in perspective, when Northwest growers had their first 20-million box crop in 2009, the first cherries weren’t shipped until June 13, Michael said.
Last year, only 13,000 boxes of the record 23.2 million boxes of Northwest cherries were shipped in May. Shippers are expecting to send out closer to 750,000 boxes this month.
Gordon Brothers won’t start harvesting Early Robin cherries until sometime around June 3, said Marc Nelson, Gordon Brothers’ vice president. Bing and Rainier cherries may be ready to pick starting June 8 and 10.
So far, the crop looks good, with little wind damage, he said. The Franklin County orchard near the Snake River got about 1.5 inches of rain during a storm last week, but the cherries weren’t advanced enough to be harmed by that.
However, the rain that is expected this weekend is of concern.
Nelson already is planning to use helicopters and sprayers to try to keep the cherries from soaking up water and splitting. Temperatures are expected to be in the high 70s and early 80s, and warmer weather means cherries absorb water faster.
Last week’s rain did damage some of the early cherries, but consumers won’t see those since they will be culled out when cherries are packed, Shales said.
Washington growers have been mostly lucky and avoided freeze damage, Michael said.
But Oregon orchards were hit by a damaging freeze in November before the trees were dormant, Michael said. Oregon growers estimate their crop is cut in half compared to last year.
Sullivan, a commissioner with the state fruit commission, said it’s been one of the better springs for growing conditions, with only a few instances of rain and a little bit of a cold spell early this spring.
“The last couple weeks have been perfect,” he said.
Days that reach the mid 70s and low 80s are ideal for cherries, Sullivan said.
Demand for cherries is strong, especially with the idea of cherries as a healthy food gaining traction, Michael said. That’s important because of a current focus on health.
California should wrap up with cherry harvest in the next week, so the market should be hungry for Washington cherries, Nelson said.
The constant, even heat is causing growers to expect to have a sustained volume of cherries once harvest gets into full swing, Michael said.
Farmers also are expecting to see continued growth in export markets, including Korea.
Cherries are one crop that actually is flown from Sea-Tac Airport to other nations.
“We are so early this year that we are going to have great volumes for promotion in the Fourth of July time frame, which is really important,” Shales said. That’s a key holiday when Americans love to eat cherries.
About 10 percent of the crop is expected to be Rainier and Early Robin cherries, yellow cherries with a red blush.
There should be plenty available before July 11, which is National Rainier Cherry Day.
Consumers should be able to buy Washington cherries into the first few weeks of August.
Farmers have been adding new acres and varieties to try to lengthen the time when fresh cherries are available, Michael said.
“Get them while you can,” Shales said.