Rain flirts with Northwest cherry harvest

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Rains paid a Father's Day weekend visit to Washington cherries, but it may be cool and breezy enough for damage to be minimal.

YAKIMA, Wash. — The two-week perfect start to Washington’s cherry season was dampened by rain June 13 and 16, but they may be light enough and temperatures low enough to prevent damage to the fruit.

Hot weather after a rain swells water-saturated cherries, splits them and renders them useless. But growers hope cool, wet weather will be followed by a gradual warm-up, minimizing loss.

A breeze across most of Central Washington helped dry cherries, said James Michael, domestic promotions director of Northwest Cherry Growers, the industry’s trade organization in Yakima.

“More than anything this may slow harvest for a day or two, but we still will have significant volume for the Fourth (of July),” he said. The Fourth is a prime sales period.

“We should be 8 million boxes-plus for June. It could be one of the best and earliest crops for the Fourth in a long time, and that’s key,” he said. “Retailers need to know cherries are available. The industry is ramping up speed and into full swing with reds and Rainiers.”

Early varieties were being cleaned up, and pickers were moving into Bing and Rainier.

As of June 16, about 1.25 million, 20-pound boxes of Northwest cherries had been picked, packed and shipped, Michael said. That’s out of a crop now estimated at 21.1 million boxes, which would be second only to the 2012 crop of 22.96 million. Michael said he has not heard of any labor shortages.

Fieldmen say this crop is one of the cleanest — free of defects — in years, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, the nation’s largest cherry grower, said the impact of the rain appears to be very minor. He said it’s a great crop that’s packing out well and maybe picking under estimate. There will be lots of cherries in July, he said.

Helicopters were used to dry cherries on trees in Okanogan County, said Harold Schell, director of field services at Chelan Fruit Cooperative.

Splitting has been minimal, quality remains high and harvest is still on game plan, he said.

In Yakima, Washington Fruit & Produce Co. was at the end of its second week of operating a new high-tech cherry line on June 13.

Jake Whiteside, the plant’s quality control manager, said the new 32-lane, Italian-made Unitec sizer-sorter was running well and capable of packing up to 2,000 boxes of cherries per hour, double the capacity of the company’s old cherry line, which is now idle across town.

The new line still requires about 100 workers per shift but fewer are sorting and more are preparing boxes and bags, Whiteside said.

Thurlby said roughly 70 cherry packers are in Washington and Oregon, with 10 having high-tech lines. Other companies are still calculating returns on investment to determine whether to follow suit. About five more will go to high-tech livnes next year and another five the following year, he said.

The benefit, he said, is consistent quality and fruit size of packs.


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