YAKIMA, Wash. — Pacific Northwest cherry growers are one month into their best season in years, having shipped a record 9.8 million, 20-pound boxes of sweet cherries in June despite several rains.
The previous record was 7 million in 2005, but June has averaged 3.8 million the past six years as cool weather delayed crops and rains reduced volume.
Daily shipments are running at 450,000 to 500,000 boxes and peaked at 600,000 on June 23, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima.
“For the most part, the industry is reporting clean floors (meaning fruit is shipped out as soon as it’s packed) and by all accounts fruit is moving well through the market,” Thurlby said.
Early on movement was slowed by California cherries still in the market, said Bruce Grim, manager of the Northwest Cherry Marketing Association and executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association in Wenatchee.
Short in supply, California cherries were priced high and retailers would have lost money to lower those prices, Grim said.
Much larger in volume, Washington cherries needed $2.99 per pound prices for movement, he said.
“The retail was $6.99 to $8.99 per pound, which doesn’t move a lot of fruit,” Thurlby said of the California cherries. The system backlogged a couple of days until retailers sold and culled California fruit and lowered prices, he said.
“Here we are three weeks later coming into the Fourth at $2.49 to $2.99 per pound, which is just right,” he said. “It’s the first time in years we will have lots of fruit on the Fourth.”
The Fourth of July traditionally has been a high-sales window for PNW cherries as consumers buy for the holiday.
Growers dealt with rain on June 13, 16, 24 and 27 this season but wind helped dry cherries of the first rains and weather stayed cool following the rains, minimizing crop-ruining splits.
“Our damage has been minimal. We had a couple growers with up to 10 percent damage but overall it’s about 1 percent,” Thurlby said.
Rains have been sporadic and short-lived, not the hour-after-hour or day-after-day rains that take greater toll.
Washington typically grows about 80 percent of the PNW crop. The Tri-Cities, Lower Yakima Valley and Yakima Valley were mostly done picking by June 30. Harvest was moving uphill to mid-elevations of Tieton and Naches west of Yakima and up from Malaga south of Wenatchee. Harvest is beginning to move uphill in the Okanogan. Washington’s higher elevations are picked in late August.
Oregon is nearing 50 percent picked in The Dalles. Hood River is later, about one-third picked and will go into August in higher elevations.
Idaho and Utah are about half picked and Utah will be done July 15, Thurlby said. Montana is just getting started and will pick into August.
About 10 million boxes will be harvested in July with a second peak of about 500,000 to 550,000 about July 10. Another 1 million boxes will be harvested in August.
June will average about 350,000 boxes daily, July closer to 400,000, he said.
The total crop is still estimated at 21.1 million boxes, second only to the 2012 crop of 22.96 million. Cool pollination weather and rain held the 2013 crop down to 14.25 million.
Labor has been good because of workers coming from California where work has been less because of the light cherry crop and drought, Thurlby said.
“Field labor seems to be pretty good, but I’m hearing packing house labor is short,” he said.
Numerous growers are saying for the first time in seven to eight years, they’re having sufficient labor to adequately pick cherries and thin apples at the same time, he said.