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Northwest Cherry Growers has become a five-state entity, with the addition of Montana this season.

B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, said cherry producers in the existing states—Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Idaho—were all in favor of bringing Montana into the fold. "The thought was, it was a win-win-win-win-win by doing this," he said at the annual four-state cherry meeting in May.

Montana is a relatively small cherry-producing state, with an estimated crop of 1,800 tons this season, although production is increasing. The Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Association has about a hundred members.

Mark St. Sauveur, a grower at Bigfork, Montana, said that for the past seven or eight years, about 80 percent of the state’s fresh cherries have been transported to Washington to be packed and shipped by Monson Fruit Company at Selah. The rest of the cherries are sold locally.

St. Sauveur said he thinks Montana growers will benefit from the effort that Northwest Cherry Growers puts into its cherry promotion strategies. Growers who send their fruit to Washington were already paying the $18 per ton assessment to Northwest Cherry Growers.

Thurlby said Northwest Cherry Growers as a whole stands to benefit from the expansion. "From a political standpoint, we’ve gained two more senators," he said. "The more people we have in Washington, D.C., that will jump on our bandwagon, the better off we are."

Northwest Cherry Growers will gradually update its promotion materials over the next two years to include Montana.

Crop estimates

The five states are expecting to produce 142,250 tons of fresh cherries this season.

Washington State is forecasting a crop of 114,400 tons—slightly less than last year—with 63,500 tons coming from the Wenatchee district, 49,500 tons from Yakima and Moses Lake, and 1,400 from the mid-Columbia (White Salmon). Production in many parts of the state is likely to be affected by cold damage this spring.

Don Olmstead of Grandview estimated that his area would produce 40 percent of a crop, which he said might be an optimistic assessment. Mark Roy of Yakima said he saw 75 percent of a full crop, but reported that some orchards in Selah will produce very little fruit. Pat
Sullivan said Tri-Cities growers probably lost as much fruit to frost this year as they did to rain last year. In the Wenatchee district, packers are expecting to handle slightly less volume than a year ago, Norm Gutzwiler reported.

Mike Wade with Columbia Fruit Packers, Wenatchee, said the estimated crop seems to be getting smaller day by day, but prospects are good for the remaining cherries.

Mark Zirkle said the wild card is the Columbia Basin area where there have been many new plantings lately. Some of that fruit will go to the Yakima area to be packed and some to Wenatchee.

Oregon is forecasting 23,750 tons of cherries, about a 20 percent drop in production from 2006, with most of the decrease in The Dalles, which also was hit by frost on April 1 and 2. Linda Carter, from Hood River, said her district’s crop is probably down about 15 percent, at just over 5,000 tons.

Idaho is estimating a 1,800-ton crop, slightly more than a year ago, and Utah 600 tons, about the same as in 2006.

Thurlby said a crop census compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that Washington has 36,000 acres of sweet cherries, which is more than was thought. Of those, 14,000 acres are in the Yakima district, 12,000 in the Wenatchee district, and 8,000 in the Columbia Basin, where acreage has doubled in the last few years.

Still to come

There is a significant amount of young acreage yet to come into production.

"We know we have bigger crops than we have ever seen before, and we don’t expect that to change," he said. "We’re going to see more and more tonnage produced out of the Pacific Northwest."

Kyle Mathison, a partner at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, which has a growing and packing operation in California, said there are likely to be increasing volumes from the entire West Coast.

California had adequate chilling hours last winter and was expected to produce a good crop this year, he said. The official estimate was between 6 and 7 million cartons, but Mathison said he thought the crop might be closer to 8 million cartons. However, producers were hoping to be out of the market before the Washington season began, and the transition was expected to be good. "If anyone’s going to be affected, I think it’s going to be more California than Washington," he said. "Normally, the buyers leave California pretty fast once we start picking."

Thurlby said that with the acreage planted, the Northwest has the potential to produce 200,000 tons of fresh cherries, and with a good crop from California that could easily add up to 250,000 tons from the West Coast. However, the industry remains very positive about the outlook for sweet cherries.

Last season, rain damage in the Northwest caused some marketing difficulties, but Andrew Willis, promotion director for Northwest Cherry Growers, said retailers have forgotten about last season and are excited about the new crop. Retail chains are being encouraged to promote Northwest cherries from June through August. Cherries will be promoted on in-store television and radio in 8,000 stores this summer. Late-season promotions will encourage consumers to buy cherries and freeze them for later use.

The commission is launching a Sweet Health campaign. Recent research shows that cherries have high levels of anthocyanins (antioxidants).

Exports

Keith Hu, international promotions director, said the export market should be strong this season because the weak U.S. dollar will make Northwest cherries a good value in other countries, and buyers around the world are conscious of the high quality of Northwest cherries.

One of the goals of the international promotions program is to increase sales to Japan, while maintaining sales to mature markets such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Promotions in Japan will include a consumer contest to tie in with the Diamond of Fruit theme. In Taiwan, the commission will run a contest to select a model as a spokesperson for Northwest cherries. In China, a national singer will be chosen as a spokesperson, and Chateau Ste. Michelle winery will run joint promotions. In Mexico, a joint promotion with Hershey’s is planned.

Promotions are also scheduled in other key markets, including Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.