Early crop gives NW cherry growers high hopes

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Cherries are a ways out from harvest at Ruiz Orchard east of Sunnyside, Wash., on May 20. Cherries were riper in the Tri-Cities and Mattawa, where harvest was expected to start a few days later.

RICHLAND, Wash. — With an early but lighter crop, Pacific Northwest cherry growers anticipate a second year of record June volume and excellent Fourth of July sales.

The 2015 crop is estimated at 19.7 million, 20-pound boxes by the Five State Cherry Commission that met at the Red Lion Hanford House Hotel in Richland. The forecast is down 15 percent from a record 23.2 million boxes last year.

The commission and Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima represent cherry growers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.

A rising gross domestic product, continuing low interest rates, no gasoline price spike and strong Easter consumer spending all point toward good cherry sales this season, said B.J. Thurlby, Northwest Cherry Growers president.

The region experienced the earliest bloom on record. Harvest is expected to start about May 22 in the Tri-Cities and Mattawa. A record 10.1 million boxes were shipped last June, and shipments may hit 11 million this June.

“An early crop usually has good pricing pull through,” said West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, the nation’s largest sweet cherry producer.

“It will be a big momentum crop. The month of June will be one for the records but overall tonnage is down,” Mathison said.

“It’s a blessing to be early,” said Mike Taylor, Stemilt’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Mathison and others spoke of more “spurs and doubles,” defect fruit that will reduce packouts. There’s also been some early rain damage.

“Last year, there wasn’t a whole lot of rain. That’s not normal and it’s unlikely to happen two years in a row,” said Doug Pauly, operations manager of Northern Fruit Co., East Wenatchee.

Defects and the prospect of more rain and picker shortages led Wenatchee District growers to estimate their crop at 91,000 tons, down from 102,085 last year but up from the 89,308 ton three-year average. The Wenatchee District is everything north of Interstate 90.

The Yakima District, everything south of Interstate 90, was estimated at 76,500 tons, down from 83,883 last year and up from the 70,200 three-year average.

“Chelans overall are lighter across the state and the Bing crop also is less. Packouts will be lower because of doubles and sutures,” said Mark Roy, vice president of Roy Farms, Moxee.

Washington makes up 85 percent of the PNW crop.

Damage to cherry trees from last November’s freeze has taken a toll on the Oregon crop, said Megan Thompson, chairwoman of the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission.

“We have trees that look good, trees that are dead and everything in between. Sweetheart and Regina probably took it the worst,” she said.

Oregon growers estimated their tonnage at 22,000 for The Dalles, down from 31,453 last year and down from a 27,833 three-year average. Hood River is 5,500 tons, down from 7,564 and 6,345. Milton-Freewater is 450, down from 1,229 and 1,681. The Willamette Valley is steady at 100.

Sally Symms, of Symms Fruit Ranch in Caldwell, Idaho, said she hasn’t seen any freeze damage and that fruit will come in the second week of June at a level similar to last year. Idaho is estimated at 1,100 tons, close to its three-year average of 926.

Montana is estimated at 700 tons and Utah at 200.

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