WENATCHEE, Wash. — Last year’s huge Pacific Northwest cherry crop made money for retailers and some for growers but the leader of the industry’s promotional arm says even larger crops can be successful.
“We can grow the cherry deal. The U.S. market still has great potential for growth. We just didn’t have the movement we needed (in 2017) but we can grow that,” B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, told several hundred growers at the Northcentral Washington Stone Fruit Day at the Wenatchee Convention Center on Jan. 16.
Among other speakers, Matt Whiting, a Washington State University plant physiologist, talked about research in growing bigger cherries.
The 2017 PNW sweet cherry crop totaled a record 26.4 million, 20-pound boxes, besting the record 23.2 million boxes in 2014. It came in June, July and August on the heels of a record April, May and June California crop. Total West Coast production was 35.1 million, 20-pound boxes.
Thurlby said some growers are asking if it’s time to start yanking cherry orchards but that apple growers thought the same thing when apples reached 50 million, 40-pound boxes, then 100 million and now 140 million.
PNW cherry acreage, at 62,000, has grown 46 percent since 2000 and volume has grown 336 percent, he said.
June prices and returns were good but in July wholesale prices tumbled below $16 a box, unprofitable for all involved. Some picked fruit was dumped.
“Retailers told me of normal repeat customers who only bought twice this year. What they bought wasn’t very good so they switched to blueberries and grapes,” Thurlby said.
Twenty-two percent of the crop was 11-row (the number of cherries per row in a box) in size and smaller and doesn’t sell as well as 10-row and larger, he said.
The average wholesale on 10-row red cherries to Asia was $46 per box. More than 6 million boxes were exported to Asia, he said.
In any given year, crop size, quality, the amount of competition from other fruit and other variables affect supply and demand, Thurlby said. What’s needed, he said, is to grow bigger and better fruit so more customers become second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-time customers and more in a season.
In another presentation, Whiting, the plant physiologist, talked about variables including plant hormones and carbohydrates that can be manipulated during bud development to reduce flowers, fruit and make larger fruit. Buds develop from May to November dormancy for the following spring’s crop. He said more research is needed and that he doesn’t yet know to what extent fruit quality can be controlled from May to dormancy.