Mother Nature cut this year's Northwest cherry crop down to 2007 levels, with sporadic, spotty rain hitting orchards hard in the lower Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin.
Farmers already were expecting to pick fewer cherries than last year's record breaking levels.
But instead of the 18 million 20-pound boxes anticipated before harvest began, Northwest farmers ended up harvesting closer to 14.6 million boxes, said James Michael, vice president of marketing for the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima. The final count for this year's harvest is not yet tallied.
In the past, 14 million boxes has been a good number, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House. Last year, growers hit a record with about 23 million boxes of cherries.
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This year's crop is a harvest that 15 years ago would have been considered big, Kelly said. About 12 million boxes from this year's Northwest crop were grown by Washington farmers.
Washington is the nation's top grower of sweet cherries and grows about 80 percent of the sweet cherries in the Northwest, which includes Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
The season's weather damage was severe, and while each event wasn't necessarily widespread, events happened often, Michael said.
In the same area, one orchard owner could lose all but 10 percent of his or her crop, while another only lost 10 percent, he said.
"There aren't too many people that didn't have some loss or damage," Kelly said.
There was a lot of frustration on the market because it was difficult to know exactly what was available, Michael said.
The traditional holiday for cherries is the Fourth of July. But Kelly said, "We did not even come close to meeting the demand."
Then, a big rainstorm on Aug. 1 wiped out a lot of the remaining cherries, Michael said.
For some growers, workers had to sort cherries in the field because of weather damage. That affected those growers negatively because they had higher labor costs, but not higher income, he said.
"We did get some good cherries out there," Kelly said. And those growers who did have cherries got good prices -- in the mid $40s for a box.
Kelly said growers were finished shipping cherries by mid-August. In the past few years, shipping has continued into September.
This year, a little more than 400,000 boxes were shipped on peak days, Michael said. Last year, the peak was closer to more than 600,000, with 24 days where more cherries were shipped than this year's largest day. Rainier cherries were down 44 percent from last year's record, Michael said.
Early subvarieties of the blush cherry, such as Early Robin, have helped accelerate the growth and are widely planted in the Tri-City area.
Rainier cherries also were among those hit by hail, rain and wind, Michael said. The lighter skin also shows bruising and marks easier.
Despite the challenges, Northwest growers still exported about 29.5 percent of this year's crop, which is in the normal range, Michael said. The Northwest's biggest export customers are Canada, China, Hong Kong and Korea.
The only thing growers know for certain is that each cherry season will be different, Michael said.
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-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org