Cherry bust leads to finger pointing

Dan Wheat/Capital Press B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission, both in Yakima.

Large crop overloads warehouses in 'perfect storm'

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Growers lost tens of millions of dollars last summer when warehouses were overloaded by a 20.4-million-box record 2009 Pacific Northwest cherry crop.

Probably 15 to 20 percent of the marketable crop was not picked and growers lost more in poor returns on what they did pick, says Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.

Growers spend about 50 cents a pound to grow and pick cherries and their return this year averaged 30 cents a pound instead of a more normal 80 cents to $1 per pound, industry sources say.

What went wrong with the 2009 crop and what to do about it was a final discussion at the Washington State Horticultural Association annual meeting in Wenatchee on Dec. 9.

The room erupted in applause when Lee Gale, fieldman of Northwest Wholesale Inc., a Wenatchee fertilizer dealer, said, "A lot of the solution here isn't in the growing, but in the packing and marketing."

Growers blamed warehouses for not telling them sooner to quit picking because they were full. Cherries were dumped after growers paid to pick them. Growers rebuffed warehouse assertions of poor quality and too much small fruit.

"I take offense at the thinking we raised bad cherries. Not at all," Gale said. Warehouses changing minimum sizes and acceptable fruit pressure twice in the season "didn't fly well with me," he said.

Growers accused warehouses of selling cherries from their own orchards ahead of cherries from smaller growers. Warehouses denied it.

"I don't know if packers do that. We don't. I left over 100 tons on my own trees because they were too small to pack," said Eric Shrum, orchard manager of Orchard View Farms, a packer in The Dalles, Ore.

"We walked away from some of our own," said Denny Jones, general manager of Allan Bros. Fruit Inc., Yakima.

Warehouses and retailers made money but growers didn't, Gale said.

"It's suppose to be a partnership between growers and warehouses. This year, with all the volume, the partnership seems dissolved by the warehouses. In a light year, they sue you if you go elsewhere," Gale said.

B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima, said warehouses don't like to say they're overloaded because it drives prices down.

He said the "perfect storm" season occurred because harvest was late and condensed with everyone picking at the same time. Cherries entered the market when retail sales were already off 7 percent because of the recession, he said.

"It was a push to sell and it needed to be a pull," he said. "I know as growers, we can't sustain too many of these."

A huge factor, Thurlby said, was missing the traditional peak Fourth of July market because the crop was late. Only 4 million boxes had been sold by the holiday and the market needed double that, he said.

More packing capacity and more markets are needed, people agreed.

In previous years, Thurlby has often said the industry could handle the huge crop, known to be coming from increased cherry tree plantings.

"We have 60,000 acres in production and we're all asking the question, Have we hit the limit? We hope not. We hope to keep growing it," Thurlby said. "I always assumed we had enough belt time (capacity) and this year was the first time there wasn't. Was it the compression of the crop or is this the playing field for the future? None of us know."

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