YAKIMA, Wash. — The market remained strong with demand exceeding supply, but more growers than usual lacked a crop preventing the 2013 Pacific Northwest cherry season from being a winner, says the leader of the industry’s trade organization.
In May, B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima, predicted an 18.3-million-box sweet cherry crop for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
But the crop shrunk from rain in early June and again in July. Harvest and the last shipments from Wenatchee’s Stemilt Hill ended on Aug. 21.
The final count for the season was 14.25 million, 20-pound boxes of cherries, Thurlby said. That was after adjustments for cherries picked and packed on opposite sides of the Washington-Oregon border.
It’s the sixth largest PNW cherry crop. A few years ago it would have been large, but it’s considered short following the record 22.3 million boxes of 2012, Thurlby said.
“The future is the 20-million-box range. We believe that’s marketable. At that rate more growers will see success,” Thurlby said.
The challenge is volatility with every year being different, mainly due to weather, he said.
Higher prices did not translate into higher grower returns because weather-related problems and higher wages caused grower costs to be significantly higher than the previous two seasons, said Kirk Mayer, manager of Washington Grower Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
The average wholesale prices per box for Washington fresh sweet cherries were up over last year, Mayer said. Dark sweets were going for $48.80, versus $31.69 last year. Sweethearts fetched $46.54 on average, compared to $32.42 in 2012, and dark sweets averaged $48.80, compared to $31.69 last year.
Adverse weather impacts on supply made it a “very difficult” season for growers, their employees, packing house, marketers and retailer, Mayer said.
“Higher prices helped the industry as a whole but it wasn’t enough for many growers to call it a good season,” said Roger Pepperl, marketing director of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, the industry’s largest packer-marketer.
Rain cause low packouts which were not profitable as a whole and light fruit set from poor pollenization caused some orchards to not get harvested, Pepperl said.
Retail shelf consistency was erratic with early June very difficult to promote and supply, he said.
“We worked incredibly hard for our growers to maximize return to the land with volumes produced,” he said.
Washington accounted for 77 percent of the crop and Oregon, 21 percent.
Oregon was slightly above its 10-year average in production, making it a good season, said Dana Branson, administrator of the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission in Hood River.
“Some early growers picked before the first rains and made money and the late season did alright,” she said.
Bing and Skeena, in mid-season, was rain damaged and some was left on trees, Branson said.
Shipments started June 1 and spanned 83 days versus 89 in 2012, Thurlby said. The first two weeks of May were very hot, the last two very cold and then the first two weeks of June were very wet followed by extreme heat, he said.
Shipments reached 5 million boxes before the Fourth of July but Thurlby had expected 7 to 8 million before that prime sales weekend. There were 4.8 million boxes shipped in June, 8.7 million in July and 800,000 in August, down each month from 2012 numbers of 5.1 million in June, 13.3 million in July and 4.5 million in August.
For the first time, Thurlby said, the daily peak shipment was greater in July (429,000 boxes on July 15) than June (400,000 on June 24).
Exports totaled 4.2 million boxes or 30 percent of the crop versus 7.9 million or 35 percent in 2012. Canada led at 1.6 million, China was next at 1.2 million, Korea followed at 491,000, ahead of Taiwan and Japan.
Australia dropped from 434,000 boxes to 162,000 because Australian inspectors were finding powdery mildew from the rain, Thurlby said. Shippers eased up on Australia and shipped cherries other places, he said.