RICHLAND, Wash. — The 2017 Pacific Northwest sweet cherry crop is forecast at 22.7 million, 20-pound boxes, but it could easily exceed the 23.2 million-box record set in 2014, several growers said May 17 at the Five State Cherry Commission meeting.
But they also foresee a good spread of 90 to 100 days to harvest the crop, which they hope makes for orderly supply and sales and good prices.
“This crop is bigger but will have more shipping days. Last year we had 20 days to move the bulk of the crop. This year it should be 40 so it will sell like a smaller crop,” said West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee.
The 2016 crop was 20.97 million boxes, the third-largest in history. Many growers said this year’s crop could well be 15 to 25 percent larger. That would put it in the 24 million- to 26 million-box range.
“We will have lots of cherries,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of the industry promotional arm Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima.
In 2009 and 2012, weather-caused harvest compression — when the whole crop matured at about the same time — caused a glut in the supply chain and depressed prices. Growers are crossing their fingers that doesn’t happen this year.
After two years of record-early harvest starts driven by warm springs, this year’s cooler spring is bringing the start back to normal, or slightly later than normal.
For years, the first cherries picked in the state have been the Chelan variety at the orchard of John and Debra Doebler at Sentinel Gap north of Mattawa. Heat reflected into their orchard from high basalt cliffs brings early maturity.
Their normal start is June 1. Last year was their earliest ever, on May 18, and the year before it was May 23, giving Stemilt Growers the first cherries to pack.
At the meeting, Mathison said the first cherries will probably be picked June 12 this year. But later that day in their orchard, the Doebler sons, Ryan, 30, and Travis, 26, estimated a start of June 5 or 6. Their father, John, said June 7 or 8 is more likely.
“Usually, the warehouse comes out and says, ‘Let’s start tomorrow and then they do and whoops, it’s too green.’ Then it’s ‘Let’s wait a day,’” Debra Doebler said.
“There’s always an eagerness but there’s no real reason to be early because California has plenty of fruit,” John Doebler said. “It’s better to be patient and have better quality.”
The Pacific Northwest harvests about 80 percent of the national sweet cherry crop, and California harvests 15 percent, followed by Michigan and New York. Washington grows roughly 85 percent of the PNW crop.
2016 prices have not yet been released by USDA, but Washington’s 2015 crop garnered $436.9 million and averaged $19.70 per box. Those were low due to harvest compression from hot weather. The national value of sweet cherry sales that year was $758.9 million.
California harvests before the PNW and for several years has been hindered by bad weather. This year, it has its largest crop in years, estimated at 7 million to 8.5 million, 15-pound boxes.
The bulk of the California crop will be harvested the weeks of May 21 and 28 and should be wrapping up as Washington’s harvest ramps up.
“I worry about California having some carry-over. There’s always some shippers down there who sit on some fruit and then put it out after we start. I hope that doesn’t happen this year. Those little nuances can really affect us,” Thurlby said.
He said Washington’s late start makes him nervous about having enough volume for Fourth of July sales. He anticipated roughly 5 million boxes in June, 14 million in July and 4 million in August.
“I pray we hit the Fourth with some volume and if every retailer is at $5.99 per pound, we are dead. We need to get ads (with prices of $3.99 and $2.99 per pound) going for momentum,” Thurlby said.
The crop in Turkey is early this year and should be finished by mid-July, opening a window for Northwest sales into Europe, he said.
South Korea, China, Southeast Asia and Mexico are priority foreign markets with Myanmar and Cambodia promising for the future, said Keith Hu, international program director of Northwest Cherry Growers.
A big help to exports is a new Western Distribution Services’ cold storage facility next to Sea-Tac Airport, Thurlby said.
“Last year, we put more fruit through Sea-Tac than ever before, but we’ve always needed more cold storage there so this has the potential to really help us,” he said.
James Michael, domestic promotions director of Northwest Cherry Growers, said 71 percent of cherry sales are impulse buys. He encourages retailers to prominently display cherries because they are a top revenue item.
With 76 million out of 318 million Americans buying cherries, there’s huge growth potential, he said.
Cherries are a great source of fiber, a natural anti-inflamatory and make a great evening snack, he said.
“They have a low glycemic index so their sugar is absorbed more slowly and they have natural melatonin to help you sleep,” he said.
The five state forecast is for 186,000 tons for Washington up from 149,218 in 2016 and 165,267 in 2015. Oregon is forecast at 39,000 tons down from 41,156 in 2016 but up from 21,784 in 2015. Idaho is forecast at 1,800 up from 833 the previous two years. Montana is estimated at 1,000 tons and Utah at 200.
The Washington breakdown is: Wenatchee district 100,000 tons, up from 86,368 in 2016 and 87,248 in 2015; Yakima district 85,000 up from 62,850 in 2016 and 78,019 in 2015.
The Oregon breakdown: Hood River, 7,000, down from 7,055 in 2016 and up from 4,860 in 2015; The Dalles, 30,000, down from 33,330 in 2016 but up from 16,766 in 2015; Milton-Freewater, 2,000, up from 771 in 2016 and 158 in 2015.
The Five State Cherry Commission adopted an $18 per ton grower assessment for promotions.