Give Mother Nature a pat on the back for work well done. At least so far.
Her delivery of a moderate winter and warm spring have cherry growers smiling as they prepare for what’s predicted this year to be the state’s third-largest sweet cherry crop on record. And, say experts, fruit quality ranks high, too.
“All this great weather seems almost too good to be true,” said Brianna Shales, spokeswoman for Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers, one of the world’s largest fruit companies and a top U.S. supplier of cherries.
“We see lots of cherries on the trees and believe we’re on track for a very strong crop,” she said. “As long as the weather cooperates.”Regional trade associations have estimated a Northwest cherry harvest this year of just under 20 million boxes, about 40 percent more than 2013’s rain-drenched crop of 14.3 million boxes but less than 2012’s record crop of 23 million.
In April, observers noted well-spaced blossoms on trees across central Washington, which brought pre-harvest predictions of the juicy, nice-sized fruit that marketers and comsumers love.
“If the weather holds, we could have a fruit of extremely high quality,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers. “It looks like very healthy harvest.”
Picking is expected to begin in the first week of June and continue through September. Traditionally, producers aim for a majority of the crop to be plucked by the Fourth of July holiday.
Over the last decade, the state’s cherry production -- Bings, Rainiers and a host of other varieties -- has surged as newer, higher-yield trees bear fruit and overall acreage has increased. The state now has about 40,000 acres of cherries in production.
Of course, say producers, a near-record crop of quality fruit all depends on fickle Mother Nature. In early May last year, growers had predicted a crop of 18 million boxes before rainstorms through most of June and July dashed those hopes.
Rain “just chipped away” at crop totals through key harvest months, Shales said of Stemilt’s 2013 cherry crop. “It was disappointing, to say the least.”
Stemilt averages about 3 million boxes of cherries annually, with around 10 percent organic.
This year, growers also have their fingers crossed for an early summer of slowly warming temperatures that spread ripening times -- and therefore the work of harvesting and shipping -- across eastern Washington’s cherry-growing regions.
Under ideal conditions, southerly orchards near Tri-Cities and Yakima ripen first and, as summer progresses, the band of “readiness” moves north to Grant, Chelan and Okanogan counties.
This weather-dependent process favors a labor force that traditionally tracks north as orchards become harvest-ready ensure a steady supply of pickers.
And since most cherries are sold within a few days or weeks of being picked, a nicely spread harvest also delivers a steady supply of fruit to markets and keeps prices from fluctuating too widely.
Conversely, a compressed harvest means much of a crop gets picked and delivered at the same time, which can lead to surges and ebbs in fruit on grocery shelves. That happened in 2009 when harvest didn’t begin until June 17 and the industry was forced to ship 15 million boxes in about 45 days.
One more factor aiding this year’s Washington harvest is the downturn in California’s crop due to drought and unstable winter conditions. This spring, California’s crop is expected to fall to 5 million boxes from the normal annual haul of 8 million.
“We could see very high demand for Washington cherries when they hit store shelves,” said Thurlby. “California’s limited crop will mean two to three weeks of sparse cherry supply for the consumer -- at least until our cherries begin arriving in mid-June.”
On the marketing side of harvest, cherry growers will likely be advertising heavily to alert consumers to the arrival of a new crop in produce sections. “We’ll likely see demand exceed supply in those early weeks,” he surmised.
Good weather, quality fruit and an expectation of strong demand and prices means “the stars could be in alignment for a really fine harvest,” said Thurlby.
“Hopefully, what we’re seeing in May will hold through June and July.”
Cherry tidbits: A few facts about the region’s sweetest fruit
-- North Central Washington leads the state in almost all categories of cherry production: number of acres, number of planted trees, number of trees per acre.
--In 2012, the price per ton of fresh cherries in Washington averaged $2,710, with a total crop value that year of just under $500 million. In 2013, bad weather cut the crop by nearly 40 percent from the previous year. Result: the price per ton soared to $3,190 but the overall crop value fell to $351 million.
-- During the rain-drenched 2013 harvest, the average number of boxes packed in July (mid-season) was 282,000 per day. That compares to 429,127 boxes per day in July 2012 and 364,000 boxes per day in 2011.
-- The U.S. exports a lot of cherries to Canada and Japan. In 2012, total fresh cherry exports (sweet and tart) were valued at $501.6 million, up 22 percent from 2011. Exports to Canada accounted for about $162 million of all exports in 2012.
-- Bing cherries, the most popular cherry in the U.S., was named in honor of Ah Bing, a Chinese orchard foreman who worked in Milwaukie, Ore., in the 1850s. The Rainier cherry was named, of course, after Mount Rainier by Harold Fogle, a Washington State University horticulturalist who developed the variety in 1952.
-- Cherries have been found to be a good source of antioxidants and contain compounds believed to aid in pain relief of arthritis, gout and headaches, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
Sources: Northwest Cherry Growers, Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture.