Fruitful summer: Cherry crops a sweet success

The 2019 Washington cherry crop is expected to reach nearly 25 million boxes.

These initial estimates come from about 2,100 cherry growers who are part of the Northwest Cherry Growers/Washington State Fruit Commission, a five-state group covering orchards in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.

Before cherries are picked, “there are still plenty of opportunities to have a wreck,” said Bill Michener, who has a small cherry orchard on his farm in Grandview.

“It should be a fantastic crop,” said James Michael, the Washington State Fruit Commission’s vice president of marketing for North America.

One of the gauges of a successful crop is the number of flower blooms. A recent year that saw a record number of cherries included four to six flowers per bud, compared to a two- to three-bloom average.

“This year, we’re seeing more twos than fours,” Michael said. “The crop will be spread widely throughout the trees and the fruit will be good dessert quality.”

Northwest cherries boast large, firm fruit, with 80 percent coming in at one inch in diameter or larger. This is superior to some of the nation’s other cherry markets.

“It’s important we maintain this size while maintaining a world-class product,” Michael said. “It’s not just a processed product. It’s still a cherry. It’s a taste of summer.”

Producing more than 20 million boxes in a season has become the norm after Washington first broke that threshold in 2009. A box holds 20 pounds of cherries.

American cherries are affected by 40 percent retaliatory tariffs placed by China, a country that had grown from receiving its first shipment of Northwest cherries 13 years ago, to becoming the crop’s largest export market as recently as 2017. That was before sales suddenly dropped due to the trade war.

Industry estimates say Chinese tariffs cost cherry growers $96 million across Washington, Oregon and Idaho just last year. Michael said Northwest growers export about 30 percent of their crop each year and despite the retaliatory taxes, 30 percent still left the country.

“One million boxes that would have gone to China were shipped elsewhere in the world,” Michael said. This included other markets like South Korea, where Washington cherries are increasing in demand.

It’s critical cherries have an intended destination since, unlike other crops, cherries are highly perishable and need to be kept cold throughout the process of getting them from the tree to consumer. The stone fruit must be picked, packed and shipped within 24 hours, holding the fruit at 32 degrees while it’s prepped for boxing.

Labor demands also can be a threat to growers when it’s time to get the fruit off the trees.

Local cherry farmer Patrick Sullivan said he lost more money last year from a labor shortage than he did from the impact of Chinese tariffs.

“I was short on labor last year and the years before that also. We spend all this money developing this crop, getting it to harvest and then you don’t have somebody to pick it,” he said.

Sullivan is watching potential changes to the H-2A program, which provides visas to foreign nationals to serve as temporary agricultural workers. Sullivan called the program “pretty essential” and said Washington has had trouble in the past establishing its own residential workforce. He is concerned about the prospect of additional fees connected to the use of the visas.

“If that’s the case, I’ll have to rely on local and some California labor for harvest,” he said.

The labor demand for cherries is huge for the crop that’s consistently part of the top 10 agricultural commodities in Washington, valued most recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at $479 million for 2017. This was a 4 percent drop from the previous year’s bumper crop when cherries were the sixth highest crop in the state, but still a significant increase from the $447 million value in 2015.

The USDA’s 2018 crop overview for the state showed a sweet cherry production of 215,000 tons, which generally are eaten fresh, and include varieties like Bing, Rainier and Chelan.

The state also produced about 23.8 million pounds of tart cherries, which often are used for juice. The Northwest cherry season begins in early June and runs through the end of August.

Courtesy Northwest Cherry Growers Rainier cherries are among the sweet cherry varieties grown in Washington that usually are eaten fresh. (Courtesy Northwest Cherry Growers)

This year’s season the trees were later to bloom due to the extended amount of time snow was on the ground in early 2019, but Michael said the crop gained about 10 days on growth due to the steady spring warmth. Thanks to microclimates within the Northwest, cherries are able to ripen at different times, which can lengthen the overall season.

Michael said growers need to be risk-tolerant if they’re going to grow cherries — known as a gambler’s crop.

“Mother Nature can give or take away a quarter of our crop in one weekend,” he said.

He said weather remains the greatest threat to cherry farmers when compared to other external factors, like labor issues or trade wars. “There are a lot of other crops that will let you sleep better at night,” Michael said.

Though cherry growers might suggest the key to a more restful sleep is consuming some of their fruit about an hour before bedtime. Sleep cycle benefits from cherries were cited as part of a larger study commissioned by local growers to tout the health benefits of the fruit.

The industry group was behind a paid review of 30 previous studies which summed up various nutritional claims for sweet cherries, including anti-inflammatory benefits, reduction of gout attacks and lowering blood pressure. The study pointed to the fruit’s high concentrations of nutrients like fiber, vitamin C and potassium.

More than 42,000 acres of land are dedicated to growing cherries in Washington.

Michael said a lot of families in the business, like the Sullivans, have been growing cherries for years. There still are new growers in the industry, some intrigued by the volatile crop and others interested in the disruptions new technology can bring to the field.

Sullivan’s family has been growing cherries since the 1960s. The three generations of farmers have 160 acres north of Pasco “We’re not getting rich, but we’re supporting our livelihood,” he said.

Still, Michael said growers have to prepare for a total crop loss once every four years. “You’re lucky if you break even because whatever it is doesn’t come close to what you owe the bank,” he said.

When asked if he ever considers getting out of the business, Sullivan laughed. “I think about it daily,” he said.

He said the last five years have been especially difficult due to rising costs for everything from fuel, labor and chemicals.

“Our returns stay pretty much the same,” he said.

Sullivan said big retail stores have more ability than they once did to push around the little guys when it comes to pricing, but he stays with the industry, believing in the strength of the product.

“The Northwest raises the highest quality cherries in the nation, if not the world,” he said.

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