YAKIMA, Wash. — Despite the lateness of the U.S. Northwest cherry crop harvest, the silver lining is that this year's season will extend through the summer, with late July being the peak of the harvest. The crop is expected to not only run later, but longer, with promotable volumes forecasted through August.
The lateness of the harvest, due to cold climate conditions this past spring, is primarily responsible for the delayed season. Rainier cherries provided a significant portion of the early tonnage in July as the sweet red varieties ripened.
According to the Northwest Cherry Growers, the 2008 Northwest cherry crop is down 30% to 35% from last year and is forecasted at 9 million boxes, down from last year's 14 million. Early August is anticipated to be the season's peak, and the crop will run 80 days, five days longer than last season.
Last year's high-tonnage cherry crop, with good quality and great pricing, boosted cherries to one of the highest return-per-square-foot figures among items in the retail produce department. This year's higher free-on-board price, growers and packers reported, has moved cherries into a luxury item category. But due to the reduced tonnage in June, retailers scrambled for supply leading up to the key selling weekend of the 4th of July to meet ads already in place, despite higher prices.
While the crop will be lighter than last season, this year's harvest is characterized by larger fruit than previous seasons, with excellent natural sugars. B.J. Thurlby, president, Washington State Fruit Commission, explained that the cold nights of the spring provided a natural bud thinning that afforded larger cherries come harvest time. As a result, this year's average fruit is larger than last year's.
“This year has been a struggle from the beginning,” said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director, Rainier Fruit, a vertically integrated grower/packer/shipper based in Selah, Wash. “The cold weather in the spring was devastating. We spent thousands of dollars to save the fruit. If we did not have commitments to our customers, there were orchards that we would have walked away from, taken an insurance loss and come out ahead. We have a strong commitment to our customers, and the commitments we make to each other. As a grower/packer/shipper, we picked fruit with the knowledge that there was a sale at the end.”
As the season progresses, growers, shippers and packers are saying that retailers working with their supply partners will be able to create cherry ads into August. “There is fruit out there,” Wolter said. “There is still an opportunity to catch sales usually trapped in early summer.”
The U.S. cherry crop is primarily grown in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Montana.