YAKIMA, Wash. — Pacific Northwest cherry growers are wrapping up one of their better seasons in years with good fruit, good demand and good pricing, industry leaders say.
As of Aug. 13, the industry had shipped 23.5 million, 20-pound boxes — the third largest crop behind 25.3 million boxes in 2018 and the record 26.4 million in 2017.
Harvest will finish between Aug. 20 and 25 in high elevations south of Wenatchee and on lower slopes of Mt. Hood. The crop will reach the 23.6-million-box estimate made at the industry’s Five-State meeting in Richland, May 15, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, the industry’s promotional arm in Yakima.
“Cherry growers are very happy. It’s been a good year. Quality and weather have been great. We’ve had fewer hot days, no wildfire smoke like last year and the market has been firmer the whole season than in recent years,” Thurlby said.
Brian Focht, manager of the Northwest Cherry Marketing Association in Wenatchee, said it’s been one of the better seasons in terms of sales and prices but that prices still need to improve to keep up with grower costs.
Prices usually slump in July when supply exceeds demand. Prices firm up at the end of July as supply declines.
But this year, there was a steady increase in price from $28 to $30 per box on July 10 to the high $40s to high $50s in the last week, Focht said. That’s better than normal, he said.
Bing harvest came early, a bit on top of the Chelan variety but there was a lull after Bing which allowed time to sell them before Skeena and Lapin began, Thurlby said.
“So for once demand continued to exceed supply through the season which is very rare,” he said.
Market firmness has been aided by late season Canadian varieties picking light at 7 tons per acre versus 14, Thurlby said. Lighter volume “hopefully will result in higher per pound rates for growers to make out,” he said.
Pricing and demand have been strong all season, Thurlby said, even though early on there was a lot to be nervous about.
California anticipated a record large crop. It could have saturated the market before the Northwest. China was thought to be gone as an export market because of tariffs. Compression of harvest timing seemed to be building.
“Going into the season for me was like being a cat on a hot tin roof,” Thurlby said. “It all seemed like a panic.”
But then May 18-21 rains cut California’s crop by more than half, Northwest harvest compression was less than expected, rain was minimal and China ended up buying 1.3 millon boxes of cherries despite tariffs of 63%.
That compares with 1.6 million boxes to China last year and 3.2 million in 2017, the last full pre-tariff season.
USDA tariff relief was announced in late July of 17 cents per pound with caps of $125,000 per grower for 2018 and $250,000 for 2019.
Companies will not take the risk of shipping any more cherries to China this season since its Aug. 5 partial to full ban of U.S. agricultural goods, Thurlby said. Had the ban happened two weeks earlier, it would have hurt cherries, he said.
Potential lack of a China market next season and Little Cherry Disease wiping out orchards and threatening to take more appear as the greatest challenges for next season.
Focht said there’s also always access to all markets, volume, harvest timing, size of the California crop and weather.