An ominous spring has given way to a brighter summer for Northwest cherry growers.
Growers from the Tri-Cities to the Yakima Valley have largely finished picking a 2010 crop that's lighter than a year ago, but has yielded slightly higher prices and boasts excellent quality, according to the Northwest Cherry Growers, which promotes the region's cherry industry.
"I'm very pleased where we are," said Pat Sullivan, a cherry grower in Pasco. "We weren't hanging our heads, but there was a lot of concern there in May about the crop."
A prolonged wet and cool late spring, along with persistent rainfall when cherries were developing, damaged early season varieties and led to poor pollination in some orchards, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission.
But the rains ceased and temperatures warmed by late last month, and sweet cherries from the Tri-Cities to the Yakima Valley responded.
Northwest Cherry Growers now expects a yield of about 12 million, 20-pound equivalent boxes from its five-state region of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah, Thurlby said.
Washington is the largest sweet cherry growing state in the nation, producing 40 percent of the nation's crop, according to 2008 production figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.
In 2009, Northwest Cherry Growers shipped a record 20.5 million boxes of a crop that was late to bloom and compressed the harvest from the Tri-Cities to Yakima and Wenatchee. Smaller cherries largely weren't picked because packing houses were full, and the huge crop reduced prices paid to growers.
This year, the cool late spring slashed the yield of early season Chelan cherries to 400,000 boxes. In 2009, Northwest growers shipped 1.24 million boxes of the variety.
Cool conditions also delayed picking, leading to fewer cherries in stores for the July Fourth holiday than growers would have liked. More than 7 million boxes had been shipped by earlier this week, Thurlby said.
But the upside for growers has been better prices: $2.30 a pound was the average retail price in the U.S. during the July 4 weekend for red cherries, up slightly from the same period last year, Thurlby said.
And for consumers the quality "has been unbelievable the last few weeks," Thurlby said.
"You can always tell based on the messages posted on our website by consumers. It has been very positive this year," he said.
The sweet cherry harvest is largely completed from the Tri-Cities to the Yakima Valley, and now is moving north into growing districts that had a later bloom. That has allowed the harvest to flow logically from south to north, giving the cherry market stability, Thurlby said.
Prices also have been steady because of a lighter supply and good demand, Sullivan said. Cherries mostly are larger this year, and larger cherries have a longer shelf life and on average have higher sugar levels, according to Northwest Cherry Growers.
Prices also have largely remained steady, Sullivan said, and more than 90 percent of the picked fruit from his orchard has been packed. He said that's a good "packout" rate.
Denny Hayden, who grows cherries north of Pasco, experienced losses to his Chelan crop from the spring rains. But he said the Rainier crop produced a better yield.
"The quality's been high: Good sugars, good eating fruit, good size," Hayden said. "The only black mark is we don't have enough of it."