By DAN WHEAT
RICHLAND, Wash. -- As cherry clusters hung sparsely in orchards near Pasco, Sundale and Hood River, Pacific Northwest cherry growers met in Richland and estimated this year's crop at 18.2 million boxes. That's down 21 percent from the record 22.9 million of last year.
Alternate light bearing after a heavy season, cool weather during pollination and freeze damage all make less fruit but 18.2 million boxes is still decent size and very manageable for marketing, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, Yakima. The trade organization's May 15 meeting was attended by 120 growers from five states.
"This will be a nice crop," Thurlby said, adding he still thinks good seasons are possible with crops larger than 20 million boxes, given the right weather and right fruit.
"July as usual will be challenging and we will need good promotions then," he said.
Because of an early bloom, harvest will start around June 4, about a week earlier than usual, Thurlby said. June volume, at about 6 million to 7 million boxes, will be the heaviest in six years and should set up great Fourth of July sales, he said.
"The Fourth is on a Thursday, which retailers say is optimal because Wednesday ads will push multiple shopping trips," Thurlby said. "Consumers will shop Wednesday night and be back to reload Friday or Saturday."
He predicts 9 million boxes in July and 2.5 million in August, half of last August.
Thurlby and his associate, Keith Hu, had just returned from two weeks in South Korea, Japan and China meeting with importers and setting up promotions.
The Japanese like cherries in June and are excited that they will get more Northwest volume in June after several years of later crops, Thurlby said.
The Northwest exported 8 million boxes of cherries last year, up 43 percent from 5.7 million in 2011, with the largest growth in China, South Korea and Australia.
Washington produced $491 million worth of sweet cherries in 2012, which was 62 percent of the national crop, said Dennis Koong, deputy director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service Washington field office in Olympia.
The five states represented at the Richland meeting -- Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah -- accounted for 77 percent of the 2012 crop, Koong said. Include California, second to Washington in production, and it's 98.9 percent, he said.
The Northwest is hoping for a better year than last.
The huge 2012 crop was hampered by 16 rains that caused slowdowns in picking, packing and sales momentum, Thurlby has said.
The average Washington wholesale price for the season was $35.67 per 20-pound box compared with $43.50 in 2011 and $41.77 in 2010, according to the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
While 2012 was regarded as a poor season it was not as bad as 2009 when a compressed large harvest glutted the market and dropped prices to a season average of $28.49, Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Clearing House, has said.
The 2013 estimate is 141,500 tons (14,150,000 boxes) for Washington, 37,000 tons in Oregon, 1,600 in Idaho, 1,700 in Montana and 750 in Utah.
In Washington, Yakima southward is estimated at 60,000 tons, down from 83,000 last year and Wenatchee northward is estimated at 81,500 tons, down from 100,000, Thurlby said.
From Yakima south to Oregon there's a lot of 2 tons per acre -- normal is 6 to 8 -- which is light enough that market and price will determine if it is even picked, he said.
In much of South Central Washington yields appear to be 2 tons to 4 tons per acre while normal is 6 to 8, he said.
In Oregon: The Dalles and Dufur, 29,000 tons; Hood River, 6,200; Milton-Freewater, 1,200; Willamette Valley, 100.