By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Rain damage has reduced Northwest Cherry Growers' estimate of this year's crop from 18.3 million boxes to 14.2 million, a drop of 22 percent.
"As all of us know, the weather in June was less than optimal," B.J. Thurlby, the trade organization's president, wrote to growers, packers and marketers in the release of his latest crop estimate late July 5.
It is a 36 percent decrease from last year's record of 22.3 million boxes for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Montana.
The packout rate is expected to be 77 percent in Washington and 65 percent in Oregon where most of the fruit comes from, he said.
"On the positive, the estimation team sees a very nice crop of late variety cherries," he said. "Sweetheart, Lapin, Skeena and Regina varieties have fared much better than earlier varieties."
A total of 5.8 million, 20-pound boxes had been shipped as of July 5 with Rainier at a record-to-date 741,566, 15-pound equivalents and expected to garner another 600,000 before they finish, he said.
Utah had finished picking a short crop, Thurby said. Idaho was finishing on Bing with some later fruit of decent size remaining and Montana was just starting on its early varieties which will be short, he said.
Tom Riggan, president of Chelan Fresh Marketing, said rain damage in North Central Washington was spotty.
"There was quite a bit of splitting on Skeena," Riggan said. "Some blocks of Rainier split badly and some didn't."
Packout percentages varied widely and warehouses were working harder because of more cullage to sort out, he said.
Retail demand and sales are good, meaning fruit is not stacking up at stores, Riggan said. There have been no cancellation of orders, but demand for more, he said.
He attributed that to the industry doing a better job on quality control than last year. "We all understand quality is what sells," he said.
He noted there's been substantial investment in new, high-tech sorting and packing equipment and better orchard management to produce a better product.
"Last year, we had a lot of softer, poorer quality fruit. It was a huge crop. A lot went to market that the grower didn't get paid for. Sell through was not there and it decayed on shelves," he said. "Quality is all about repeat sales."
Prices have been high but that's really not good because growers and packers make more money at lower prices and greater volume, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
The average season-to-date price of Washington Bing on June 29 was $60.89 per box compared with $37.04 a year ago and $58.12 two years ago, Kelly said.
Rainier are $57.55 versus $49.14 a year ago and $61.93 two years ago, he said.
"Traditionally, Rainier runs a little higher than Bing but this year not," he said. "Rainier has held up better against the rain and volume has been pretty good."
Kelly noted 14.2 million boxes is still a good-sized crop and once was considered large. The 14-million-box range was reached in 2006 and only three crops have been 18 million boxes and larger. Last year, the industry shipped 5.1 million boxes of cherries in June, 13.3 million in July and 4.5 million in August. This year, 4.8 million was shipped in June. Thurlby updated his projection of July to 7.8 million and August to 1.7 million.
As of July 2, daily shipments have averaged 171,756 boxes this season compared with 226,934 last season and 144,519 in 2011.