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The first official estimate of the 2009 Northwest sweet cherry crop was a record 16 million boxes, which would be a significant jump from last year’s crop. As the season got under way, reports from horticulturists indicated that it could be as large as 18 million.

Representatives of the five Northwest cherry states compiled the estimate at their May 14 meeting. With the season running late because of cool spring weather, some trees were still in bloom, making forecasting the crop accurately a challenge.

“It’s going to, at best, be a dart throw,” commented B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers. “It’s something to hang our hat on for budgeting.”

At 161,740 tons (16.2 million boxes), the crop would be close to 10 percent larger than the record 2006 crop of 148,000 tons and 60 percent larger than last year’s 99,000 tons.

All districts are predicting larger crops than a year ago. The Dalles, Oregon, producers expected to harvest 25,000 tons, more than double last year’s volume; the Wenatchee, Washington, district is forecasting 70,000 tons, a 28 percent increase from last year; and the Yakima, Washington, district is estimating its crop at 55,000 tons, a 41 percent increase from 2008. The Idaho crop is estimated at 3,300 tons, Montana’s at 1,500 tons, and Utah’s at 400 tons.

A late-May estimate by field horticulturists from 18 cherry growing and packing companies in the Northwest put the crop at between 17 and 18 million boxes, Thurlby said.

Industry representatives said that bloom was exceptionally large this year, but if the crop turned out to be larger than estimated, fruit size would likely be smaller. With major shippers saying they won’t pack cherries smaller than 11-row once the season reaches its peak, a larger crop might not translate into many more cherries shipped.

Thurlby said experience in previous seasons shows there’s a market for at least a 15-million-box crop, and demand is strong.

Mike Taylor, vice president of sales and marketing at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, said selling the crop looked very doable as long as growers focused on quality and didn’t try to pick the fruit too early. “We could have one of the greatest seasons ever,” Taylor said.