Can the industry consistently produce large cherries?
Last year, the stars aligned for fresh cherry growers, who produced a record crop in both volume and fruit size. The Pacific Northwest produced 14.5 million 20-pound boxes, with California packing 7.4 million 18-pound boxes. The Pacific Coast total was 21.3 million 20-pound boxes. But even more impressive was the high percentage of the crop that was 10.5 row or larger. Nearly 70 percent of the Northwest crop sized at 10.5 or larger, compared with around 40 percent in 2006 and 55 percent in 2005, according to the Washington State Fruit Commission.
Retailers were eager to sell the extra volume of high quality cherries, with shippers moving 30,000 boxes a day more in 2007 than the five-year average of 172,000 boxes shipped daily.
Retail and packing house statistics show that big fruit sells. But can the industry maintain the momentum and consumer excitement by continuing to produce large fruit year after year?
The Good Fruit Grower asked a sampling of cherry growers their thoughts on producing large fruit.
"I think so, but the key word is commitment," said Morgan Rowe, orchardist from Naches, Washington, and past chair of the Northwest Cherry Institute. "It takes commitment to grow large cherries, but it's human nature to overproduce the crop load."
Commitment is needed in pruning, cultivar selection, fertility management, and in managing the crop load to not let too many cherries set on the tree, Rowe expanded.
"Growers are the barriers that keep the industry from achieving large fruit every year," he said. "You've got to have a vision of how many large fruit your trees can bear and not overdo your own self. It takes vision."
The Dalles, Oregon
"Yes, though Mother Nature has a lot to say about it," said John Carter, cherry grower from The Dalles, Oregon. "But grower input is key in determining fruit size. Heavily pruning cherry trees is our biggest tool to achieve big fruit," he said, adding that nutrition and irrigation also influence crop load. "But pruning and variety selection are our biggest tools."
Carter noted that there are growers who routinely produce large fruit, year after year. "Those growers that historically have had smaller fruit will eventually adopt techniques that lead to big fruit. It's not just light crops that Mother Nature gives to you. You can do it yourself."
He recognized that there are years when growers financially need tonnage, such as 2006, a year that had less than half the crop sized at 10.5 row or larger, but that followed several rainy harvest years. Growers needed a crop to make up for lost dollars and didn't prune as heavily. "Some years, large fruit is hard to finance, but we have to do it (grow large fruit). We have a built-in excuse that growers use sometimes.
"But it can be done. We have some high quality growers who consistently do it in both Washington and Oregon."
Growing large cherries is hard to do consistently, Gary Middleton said. Growers must contend with frost, pollination issues, crop load management—all that can negatively impact fruit set. Large cherries are easier to get picked, he noted, and growers can afford to pay more for harvest. But large fruit are also the ones that crack and split first if there is a rain event near harvest.
"I'm not convinced that we can do it yet, though it's on everyone's plate. We hear the terminology 'target fruit,' but does everyone understand what it means?" he asked. "On our farm, everything we grow and do is based on producing size specific fruit."
Yes, it's possible, said Grandview, Washington, cherry grower Donnie Olmstead. The industry can always target large fruit, but there are too many factors outside the growers' control to have large fruit every year, he said. "You can prune to have 10.5 row fruit and then nasty weather comes and you lose all your planning."
Certainly the trend is for the industry to produce larger fruit because it pays, Olmstead noted.
Every location is going to be slightly different. It may be risky to prune all of your blocks hard if you have some locations susceptible to frost, he said. "We don't have enough tools to make corrections in the spring. Chemical thinning is risky."
It's about balancing risk, he summarized. Growers need to balance size with their need to make a living growing cherries. "In our better sites, we'll prune like the devil for big fruit because we know we'll have a crop and big fruit. But we can't go that way in every site. In a colder site, we'll leave more buds on."
Per unit cost
"Maybe," said Jeff Colombini. "It's a good thing to produce large quality fruit if it doesn't change your per unit cost," said the Lodi, California tree fruit grower, adding that there are still markets for smaller cherries.
"We shouldn't be excluding existing markets that are very price conscious," he said. Large cherries are a worthy goal "if everyone can shift upwards without shifting their per unit cost."
Some years it can be very difficult to grow large fruit, especially during years when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate. "Last year she cooperated and most everybody had a great year. But you can't count on her every year."
He thinks that growers are getting better at improving fruit quality and they have more tools available. "The California industry has come a long way in growing better quality and firmer fruit."
Dennis Jones, Jr.
"Yes, the industry can if we put effort behind it and we are aggressive in our training and horticultural practices," said Denny Jones of Zillah, Washington. "We should be able to produce 10.5 row fruit, though maybe not to the level that we were at last year."
Jones believes that if the economic driver is there consistently to offset the loss of yield, then the industry will put everything behind it to grow large fruit. "If growers are putting out five to six tons per acre and not seeing enough return to the acre, they need to look at more tons per acre to increase their return."
Last year, growers saw good returns per pound back to the orchard, but if the tonnage wasn't there, growers didn't necessarily make very much money, he noted.