Experts predict West Coast sweet cherry crops will be large this year.
California is expected to produce a crop nearly reaching the 2017 record level, and Pacific Northwest growers anticipate a crop about 1 million boxes higher than the 10-year average.
Some years, growers worry that an extra-large Western cherry crop could result in oversupply, driving down prices. But this year, many growers and industry leaders say they aren’t too concerned about oversupply because consumer demand for cherries appears to be strong.
“Demand for cherries the last few years has been outstanding,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers. “So, as always, we hope there is enough demand to keep both (California) and the (Northwest) from backing up. Right now, we think that both the domestic and export markets have the ability to absorb the Pacific Coast crop that we have on the trees.”
California farms in the southernmost growing regions started picking the first week of May.
“We’re looking forward to 2021 being an excellent year for California cherries in terms of both volume and quality,” Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Cherry Advisory Board, told the Capital Press.
Statewide, Zanobini said, the crop prediction is 9.47 million 18-pound boxes, near the record volume produced in 2017.
In the Pacific Northwest, harvest in early districts should begin by June 1.
Northwest Cherry Growers, based in Yakima, Wash., represents sweet cherry growers across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Montana. Washington produces about 85% of the crop across that five-state region.
This year, Northwest Cherry Growers is forecasting 23.8 million 20-pound boxes, about 1 million boxes more than the average of 22.8 million boxes.
That’s smaller than the 2017 record of 26.4 million boxes but substantially larger than last year’s light crop of 19.8 million boxes.
Despite strong crop estimates, cherry growers have faced many challenges this year.
Growers continue to wrestle with a group of viruses and pathogens collectively called “little cherry disease,” which leaves fruit bitter, small and underdeveloped. Northwest Cherry Growers estimated intervention measures to handle the disease reduced potential crop volume this year by about 2.5 to 3 million boxes.
Washington fruit trees also faced frost damage around April 10 during a cold snap. But overall, most growers say the bloom this spring was big enough to compensate for losses.
Another challenge this year was that COVID-19 slowed export markets. Thurlby of the cherry association predicts export volumes in 2021 will be about equal to those in 2020 — 28% to 30% of the overall crop.
But domestic demand is booming, partly driven by U.S. shoppers turning to fresh produce during the pandemic.
To push cherry sales this year, Northwest Cherry Growers will be running the largest marketing campaign in its history. The organization will focus on cherry health benefits.
“People already understand the benefits of things like blueberries,” said Pat Sullivan, a Tri-Cities area grower. “Now’s the time people start realizing cherries are not just a yummy summer fruit, but a good health food.”