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Late harvest lamented

Quality, size reported as excellent, but few cherries in pipeline for Fourth of July

Capital Press

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- It's 10 a.m. and pickers have been hard at work for five hours in Norm Gutzwiler's cherry orchard along the banks of the Columbia River.

A crew of 45 pickers will have the 6-acre orchard finished in just two days.

"Consumers should be happy, there's a lot of 10, 9-and-a-half-row and 10-and-a-half-row cherries," said Gutzwiler about the large, gorgeous Bings.

Consumers will be happy if they can find cherries.

"Cherries are out there, just not as much as we would like. For the third year in a row we've literally missed the Fourth of July," said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima.

He doesn't mean totally missed, but missed with the volume the industry wanted.

The Fourth of July is the top sales period annually for produce in the United States. Traditionally, cherries are the lead item. This year, it's been California peaches and may well be melons on the Fourth, Thurlby said.

Usually, the Pacific Northwest has shipped 4 million to 5 million 20-pound boxes of cherries in advance of the Fourth. It's been less the last three years. The crop was small in 2008 due to a late spring freeze. And last year and this year, it matured late due to cool weather.

Thurlby said it will be about 3 million boxes this year, about 25 percent short of what was expected.

Trucks were backed up at Washington packing sheds for two to three days waiting for cherries the week of June 21, Thurlby said. Usually, they're in, loaded and out.

Dan Kelly, assistant manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, said missing the Fourth may hurt some growers and not others, depending how light their crops are.

Some growers of early cherries "didn't pick whole blocks," sustaining heavy losses because of weather damage, he said. Later harvesting orchards probably will end up with better returns, he said.

Lighter volume is keeping prices up. The season-to-date average wholesale price per box was $41.57 on June 26 compared with $32.74 a year earlier and $63.53 two years earlier, Kelly said.

There are growers in Wenatchee and Prosser who aren't picking because their crop is too light, Thurlby said. Some growers will harvest 3 to 4 tons per acre if they're lucky; they normally get 7 to 8 tons, he said.

Gutzwiler said he got only 1 1/2 tons per acre from his Rock Island orchard but 5 to 6 tons from his Malaga orchard.

Last year, the July market was swamped with 12 million boxes of Northwest cherries. Not all sold. Orchards and packing sheds ended up dumping fruit and many growers lost money.

This year, Thurlby estimates there will be a more manageable 7 million boxes of cherries in July. He hopes consumer demand stays strong.

So far, the cherries are coming from Washington and Oregon. Idaho just started picking and Utah will be by this weekend. Montana starts about July 15. About 80 to 85 percent of the Northwest crop comes from Washington.

Large crops, small crops, devastation from rain and heat, Gutzwiler, 63, has seen it all in 33 years of growing cherries.

The fourth-generation grower also has orchards on Wenatchee Heights next to Stemilt Hill, southwest of Wenatchee. The heights and hill are regarded by many in the industry as the best spot in the world for growing large, high-quality cherries. Ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 feet in elevation, the heights and hill normally aren't picked until July 7 through 10 and will be 10 days late this year.

"It's a cherry rush," Gutzwiler said. "There's a reason there's cherries on slot machines. You have to be willing to gamble."


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