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Sweet cherry acreage in Washington State has increased almost threefold in the past 20 years, a new tree fruit inventory shows.

Washington has 36,000 acres of sweet cherries, up from 13,925 acres in 1986. In the past five years, sweet cherry acreage has increased throughout the state, and by 83 percent in the Columbia Basin area. The acreage survey was conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service in cooperation with the Washington Growers Clearing House Association and the Washington Wine Industry Foundation.

Jack Snyder, president of C & O Nursery, Wenatchee, Washington, said he expects that cherry plantings will slow down in coming years, because some warehouse managers are telling their growers the warehouses are already running their cherry lines at capacity. However, growers are likely to replant orchards as they switch to new varieties.

The late-maturing varieties Sweetheart and Skeena are among the most planted in recent years, along with some Lapins, Snyder said. Bing is still popular with growers targeting Asian markets. Although there’s some interest in early varieties, such as Tieton and Chelan, the early marketing window is limited because of increasing cherry production in California, Snyder said. “It’s risky at best to plant large acreages of some of those early cherries.”

Growers are planting more trees per acre to increase their production levels. Snyder estimates that perhaps 25 percent of the cherry trees being planted are on the size-controlling Gisela rootstocks. That’s a far lower percentage than in Europe, but he said Washington growers are still in the evaluation stages with those rootstocks.

A million trees annually

B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, said results of the survey are in line with recent nursery tree sales surveys, which indicate that Washington growers have been planting cherry trees at the rate of about a million a year.

In 2006, Washington sweet cherry production jumped 26 percent from the previous year. Thurlby said he expects the cherry crop to continue to grow, but at a rate of between 7 and 10 percent annually. Since Sweetheart and Skeena have been among the most planted varieties, much of the growth in volume will come towards the end of the season. He said marketing efforts will focus on sustaining demand for cherries throughout the season, and the industry will need to supply quality cherries season long to accomplish that.

Thurlby said he’s still bullish about the cherry market. Research shows that only 27 percent of grocery store shoppers buy cherries, compared with 90 percent who buy apples and bananas, which means there’s huge potential for growth.

Acreage of most other stone fruits has remained fairly stable, with the exception of plums, the survey shows. Only 800 acres of plums remain in Washington, down from 2,310 acres in 1986.

Apples

The report shows that apple acreage peaked in 2001 at 192,000 acres and has fallen to just under 173,000 acres, the same level as in 1993. However, Dan Kelly, assistant manager at the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, said that during the past few years a significant amount of unproductive acreage has been replanted at higher densities, so the reduction in acreage is unlikely to greatly impact production. The survey indicates that in 2006, 13 percent of the total apple acreage in the state was nonbearing.

During the past five years, apple acreage in the Yakima Valley has dropped by 26 percent, and the Wenatchee district’s acreage has declined by 28 percent. Meanwhile, apple acreage has increased by almost 50 percent in the Columbia Basin.

Pear acreage, at 25,200 acres, is almost the same as it was 20 years ago. The area planted to pears rose to 28,000 acres in 2001, but has dropped off since.

The 2006 Washington Fruit Survey can be found on the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Web site at www.nass.usda.gov/wa. Select “Fruit” in the drop-down box under Publications, and then click the “Go” button.

The survey was funded in part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency grant.