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Abrupt weather shift hammers cherries


Rain ends crop in California fields; NW growers nervous


By DAN WHEAT


Capital Press


California's cherry harvest has been severely crippled by major rain half way through the season.


More than two inches of rain fell June 4 and 5 over the entire area where cherries remained to be picked from Stockton to Marysville, said Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the California Cherry Advisory Board in Lodi.


After a couple of down days to assess damage and wait for cherries to dry, picking started again June 8 but probably 30 percent of the crop has been lost, Culbertson said.


Rain followed by heat splits cherries, ruining them for market.


"Some fields look pretty promising and in others growers will walk away from them," he said. Some growers will make insurance claims, he said.


About 5 million, 18-pound boxes had been shipped before the rain and there may be another million to end the season at perhaps 6 million by about June 18, he said.


The industry had predicted an 8.5-million-box crop finishing at the end of the month. California has averaged 8.6-million-box crops over the last three years.


Harvest started May 1 in Bakersfield. Exports have been going well with just shy of 700,000 boxes shipped to Japan and strong pull in China, Culbertson said. Some exporting will continue with a sharp eye on quality to survive shipping, he said.


Lesser quality fruit hitting grocery stores and giving consumers a less than top eating experience worries B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima, Wash.


The Northwest crop, now estimated at 17.2 million, 20-pound boxes, is two weeks late. A gap in supply between California and the Northwest is likely.


Cherries lose shelf space in grocery stores and it can be hard to regain that space when retailers scramble to fill it with other things, Thurlby said.


It's even harder to regain that space if rain-damaged fruit reaches markets and consumers have a bad eating experience, said James Michael, domestic promotions director of Northwest Cherry Growers.


The Northwest cherry industry "is shaking in it's boots" over a season that could be disastrous or could be OK, said a top retail buyer who requested anonymity.


There's doubt that the crop is as large as forecast, he said. Suppliers are "gun shy" about how much fruit they will have, when they will have it and at what price, he said, making it tough to plan advertising.


But Mac Riggan, vice president of Chelan Fresh Marketing, said he thinks there will be plenty of cherries and that prices and ads should be set.


"There will be more sold in August than June, which probably is a first," Riggan said.


Traditionally, the Northwest sells 6 million boxes of cherries by the Fourth of July, its prime sales target. This year it will be more like 2.5 million boxes by the Fourth, said Thurlby, who admitted sellers and buyers are nervous.


That increases the need for strong ads through July and into August, a time when retailers usually advertise other produce like California corn, watermelon, peaches, nectarines and grapes. There are over 500 items in produce departments in July but none sell as fast and make retailers as much money as cherries, Michael said.


Missing the Fourth can mean marketers make less money but it also can be a wash, Thurlby said.


Riggan said he's worried about fruit size and sugars not developing because of too much cool weather.


As the weather warms there may be an increased pre-harvest fruit drop but it's easier to raise prices on a crop that shortens than build momentum on a crop that lengthens, Riggan said.



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