After dismal year, many factors likely to boost industry

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

China could become the first overseas market to import 1 million boxes of Pacific Northwest cherries in the next year or two.

That plus potential increases to other countries and studies that may tout health benefits of cherries are all positives following the dismal 2009 season, says B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima.

Bud development shows the 2010 crop may be a bit smaller than the record 20.4-million-box 2009 crop, and that would be another positive, Thurlby said. There are two flowers per bud this year in places there were four to six last year, he said.

Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee has estimated that growers lost tens of millions of dollars last summer when the huge crop came late, was compressed in harvest time and overloaded warehouses. Good cherries were dumped and some not picked. Retail sales were down 7 percent because of the recession when cherries entered the market, Thurlby has said.

Thurlby was looking for bright spots to talk about at a recent Washington State University Extension meeting in Wenatchee.

He noted China imported 850,000 20-pound boxes of cherries last season when five years earlier it was zero.

"China is the only country in the world that increased its GDP (gross domestic product) this year," he said. "Most countries were in economic decline. China's middle class is expanding."

Chilean cherries, off season to the Pacific Northwest, are also being exported to China in record numbers, which means demand is still there, Thurlby said. If the dollar remains weak and prices are right, China probably will buy more Northwest cherries this year, he said.

The commission will spend $300,000 on cherry promotions in China this year, up from $170,000 last year.

The commission will increase its spending in Mexico from $65,000 to $130,000 and believes that market could be doubled to 200,000 boxes.

Canada took 2 million boxes of Northwest cherries last year, and Taiwan bought 800,000.

Years back, the Pacific Northwest sold 800,000 boxes of cherries annually to Japan, but now California has half of that market. Japan likes to buy cherries in June.

The Pacific Northwest sold 300,000 boxes of cherries last season to Japan but there's the potential to sell 500,000 boxes this year if the crop isn't late, Thurlby said.

It also helps, he said, that Japan last season dropped its fumigation requirement for cherry fruit fly, largely due to the work of Northwest Fruit Exporters in Yakima. That means cherries can be shipped on the water, saving importers $2 a box over air shipments, he said.

Funded by the commission, the University of Arizona will study the effect of cherries on prostate cancer this summer. Other studies are being considered for the anti-inflammatory properties of cherries and their effect on Type 2 diabetes. Some of the work may be done in conjunction with the California cherry industry, Thurlby said.

"If we have a silver bullet," he said, "it's probably in aggressive development of health messaging."

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