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SOURCE: David Severn, Washington State Fruit Commission

SOURCE: David Severn, Washington State Fruit Commission

Though early season estimates for the 2006 Pacific Northwest sweet cherry crop show potential for a record 14.1 million boxes, industry officials say the crop looks excellent in quality and are optimistic for a strong season.

In 2005, Northwest growers produced a record crop of 117,000 tons, equivalent to 11.7 million 20-pound boxes, but the industry could not keep up with demand by retailers, said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers. He noted that demand outpaced supply by 25 percent.

Tree sales from nurseries in California, Oregon, and Washington have averaged around one million trees annually for the past several years, he said, so it’s no surprise that the crop has potential to grow in volume from previous years. Statistics from the last fruit tree survey in Washington, taken in 2001, reported 29,000 acres of sweet cherries. Plantings have continued since then.

“We’ve been growing an average of about 700,000 boxes in each of the last ten years,” Thurlby said.

“The crop looks good, but it’s very early to tell. The crop could change drastically in the next month and a half, but we do know that the industry has the potential to increase tonnages from the past. It’s a great starting point. We have potential to have a great crop this year.”

Cherry producers and sales representatives from the four states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah shared estimates of the crop in their region and forecast for the season during the Four-State Cherry Commission meeting held in early May in Pasco, Washington. Growers from the four states combine promotion efforts under the banner of the Northwest Cherry Growers.

Washington

Washington is forecasting a fresh cherry crop of 114,000 tons, up from 102,000 tons in 2005 and nearly 88,000 tons in 2004. Both Wenatchee and Yakima/Columbia Valley districts report an increase of 10 to 15 percent from the previous year, with Wenatchee pegged at 62,000 tons and Yakima at 52,000 tons.

Gip Redman, head of field services for Holtzinger Fruit Company, said that the Yakima area experienced a somewhat mild winter, with only slight injury occurring from cold temperatures in February. Consequently, there are lots of buds showing. Doubling this year looks to be about the same as last year. “I’m optimistic on quality. It looks like a moderate to full crop, though we may see more June drop because bloom was more stretched out.”

Norm Gutzwiler from Wenatchee reported some frost damage, but overall, the crop is expected to be larger due to increased plantings.

Thurlby noted that most Washington districts are behind in crop development by several days from last year, but a spate of warm days can change that. The timing curve of peak shipments is always important for the sales desks that set up promotion programs with retailers. Shippers may have to work harder to coordinate cherry shipments for Fourth of July retail promotions.

Oregon

Oregon’s fresh cherry crop is estimated at 24,578 tons, nearly double last year’s 13,700-ton crop, which was hit by ill-timed rains that drastically reduced tonnage.

Early season projections are: Hood River district, 5,478 tons; The Dalles, 17,000 tons; Milton-Freewater, 1,800 tons; and Willamette Valley, 300 tons.

Bob Bailey of Orchard View Farms in The Dalles, said that, because of new acreage in the district, tonnage could be 10 to 15 percent greater than in 2003, the last big crop.

Idaho/Utah

Representatives from Idaho report a forecast of 2,300 tons for 2006. Bloom occurred later than normal, but growers there are looking forward to a good crop, especially after last year’s crop that was only 40 percent of normal.

Utah producers experienced frost in mid-April that may have damaged some orchards. The crop was estimated to be 300 tons of fresh, with another 300 tons going to processors. New acreage that will soon come into bearing should increase future tonnage to a potential of 1,000 tons.

California

Kyle Mathison of Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, reported that the California season is late. Stemilt has cherry acreage in California.

“We normally start picking around April 25. We hope to start this year by May 8,” he said, noting that they have seen up to 50 percent splits in the early varieties. “Overall, we see the California crop being down.”

Thurlby added that California industry representatives report the crop is behind in timing compared to last year and growers will not have a full crop. The crop is estimated at around 4 million boxes.

“It looks like peaking as an industry will be on June 27 instead of from Memorial weekend to June 20,” he said in regards to California peak cherry shipments. “This could have implications for the Northwest.”

Rainiers

Thurlby said that sales of the blush Rainier cherry continue to grow each year, with the annual Washington State tonnage increasing from around 5,000 tons in 2001 to more than 10,000 tons in 2005.

“Rainiers have found their own market niche,” he said, adding that the variety has reached critical mass. “But this means that we do need to continue to promote them.”

Rainiers need promotion focus after the Fourth of July. Retailers have reported to Northwest Cherry Growers that they are adding shelf space for Rainiers. “But with Rainiers representing about 10 percent of the total crop, we need to encourage retailers to devote that same 10 percent to Rainiers in the store. Rainiers need to be about 10 percent of their cherry retail business.”