The size, firmness and color of Chelan cherries being picked from Patrick Sullivan's trees give the Franklin County farmer hope for a good season of high-quality fruit.
While the recent rain in the Tri-Cities didn't help, Sullivan of KP Sullivan Farms said most cherries escaped damage.
So far, 85 percent of the Chelan cherries picked at his 150-acre cherry orchard north of Pasco have made it into a container or package to be sold, he said. Some of the discarded cherries split because of the rain.
He expects the percentage of cherries kept by the packing houses to get higher.
This week marked the beginning of a sweet cherry harvest that likely will result in 20 million 20-pound boxes of cherries from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah, according to industry experts. About 18 million of those boxes are expected to come from Washington, the nation's largest sweet cherry growing state.
So far, 100,000 boxes have been packed, said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers.
Most cherries are coming from the Tri-City region and Mattawa, he said. Benton and Franklin counties have about 9,000 acres of sweet cherries.
Although Chelan cherries are the first to ripen, they represent only about 2 percent of the sweet cherry crop.
While growers are trying out new varieties, Chelan, Rainier, Bing, Skeena, Lapin and Sweetheart make up the majority of the sweet cherries, Thurlby said. Rainier is the only yellow cherry among the main varieties.
Growers aim for cherries the size of a quarter or larger, Thurlby said.
"Our goal is to produce the best cherries in the world," he said.
Last year, the last of the cherries were shipped on Sept. 15. But that was the coldest spring the area had seen in 30 years, Thurlby said. This year, the last cherries are expected to be off the trees in the beginning of September.
At Sagemoor Farms north of Pasco, general manager Kent Waliser said they will start picking Bing and early Rainier cherries this weekend.
So far, the Chelan cherries picked from the farm's 220 acres of trees are smooth, with a nice dark color, he said.
Damage from the recent rains were minimal, thanks to cool temperatures, the cherries' stage of development and helicopters drying the fruit, Waliser said.
Each tree only has one crop per year, he said. Harvest for him will last about three weeks.
Waliser said they will increase from about 100 workers this week to up to 300 for peak season in the next week. Some workers are local, while others will come to harvest Tri-City cherries after they finish picking in California, he said.
"It takes a lot of manpower," he said.
When Sullivan's crop is in full swing, he will have about 180 workers. Harvest lasts about 30 days for all of his varieties, including Bing and Rainier.
The cherry industry creates a lot of jobs in the Tri-City area, Waliser said. And the workers, both local and migrant, spend money in town.
"It helps power this economy," he said.
By July 4, Thurlby said cherry harvest is expected be in full blast, with cherries out nationwide. They are the most popular fruit in July.
Consumers can expect affordable cherries because of the crop's good size this year, he said. In July, the cost to consumers may be about $2.99 per pound.
And with the arrival of cherries, Thurlby said trends show people are spending more money per shopping trip. That's a good sign, since cherries are seasonal and a bit of a luxury, he said.
In 2009, about 20.5 million boxes of cherries were produced, Thurlby said. But the availability of cherries came when Americans were cutting back on spending.
Cherries from Washington are sold all over the world. Sullivan said some of his have already been sent to Australia.
"The whole United States waits for cherries to come from Washington," Waliser said.