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As I look out my office window at another December snow flurry, I find myself looking forward to a winter’s worth of industry meetings that are bound to focus on how we can grow larger, firmer cherries. This time of year, the annual Cherry Institute meeting becomes a priority for the Northwest Cherry Grower staff as we expect a large portion of our five-state constituency to join us on January 11 at the Yakima Convention Center.

This morning, the effort crystallized as President Bush declared Washington State
a major disaster area. The flooding crisis in western Washington has put Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire’s scheduled appearance as speaker at this year’s Cherry Institute luncheon in question.

Governor Gregoire, who has done an amazing job representing our cherries during her travels in China, Australia, and Mexico over the past three years, was a natural choice for speaker. I now find myself searching for someone who can take her place if she is unable to make it to the meeting.

I can’t help but wish that my friend, the late George Ing, was around just in case.

George was a fascinating lunch-time speaker who could always be counted on for an insightful talk. Over the years, George routinely called me when he had a visual travelogue that was worth sharing with the growers. I would usually have to tell him that I had already received a confirmation on the lunch-time speaker. Inevitably, George would chuckle and mention that, just the same, he would put together a presentation "just in case" our planned speaker ended up having to cancel.

When it comes to the business of producing "larger, firmer cherries" a "just-in-case" plan for helping Mother Nature achieve that end is a must in today’s competitive cherry market.

Certainly, our industry’s marketing and sales efforts have an important role in the successful movement of the crop, but in years when we produce a majority of larger cherries, the market flows more smoothly than in years when our average row size is smaller and/or the weather causes a shift in the market.

A review of historical row-size data tells a story that is vital to our long-term success. When we produce a crop that is 50 percent 10½ row and larger, the market responds with strong demand that gives our sales organizations a hand up in their efforts to successfully sell our crop from June through mid-August. A look at the row-size data from the past four seasons presents strong evidence that our sustained success is directly associated with our ability to grow a crop that packs out 50 percent or more to 10½ row and larger. Most growers would concur that the market was more profitable in 2005 and 2007 than in 2004 and 2006.

To be sure, Mother Nature has a say in the outcome of our production success, but growers who employ every technique at their disposal to grow larger cherries have gone a long way in positively affecting their potential for profitability.

Winter meetings are a great place for growers to find out what’s new, what’s working, and what’s not when it comes to producing large, firm cherries. Industry experts like Dr. Matt Whiting, Lynn Long, and Tim Smith have been working on projects and –formulating insights that, if employed in our orchards, may serve as the "just-in-case" plan we will need to reach that goal of producing 50 percent 10½ row and larger cherries—a goal that will be important to achieve should Mother Nature give us the large-volume crop we all know is potentially out there.

So, come in from the cold, and join us on January 11 for this year’s Cherry Institute. Cherry growers and packers will learn about competitive cherry orchard systems designed to improve harvest efficiencies and how to stay profitable using the TEAM cost-analysis method. We will discuss topics from varieties and rootstock considerations for competitive orchard systems, to cherry doubling, to brined cherry trends. We will also get an update on Washington State University’s cherry breeding program, organic cherry production, and a review of the 2007 cherry marketing season. A new Cherry King will be crowned during lunch, and rumor has it that we can also expect an engaging "surprise" guest speaker to entertain us during that time.