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The disastrous 2009 Northwest cherry deal could be a catalyst for change, resulting in a stronger industry, industry representatives said during a panel discussion at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting.

Last season, the Northwest cherry industry packed 22.5 million boxes of fresh cherries, more than double the short crop of 2008. The crop matured in the late districts at almost the same time as the early districts, with the result that packers could not cope with the large volume of fruit coming in at the same time and some growers left blocks unharvested. Because the season was late, most of the crop was shipped after the critical July 4 marketing period.

Lee Gale, a cherry grower and technical consultant for Northwest Wholesale in Wenatchee, Washington, said the actual crop on the trees could have been as much as 30 million packed boxes. He believes that a wildly inaccurate preseason forecast of 15 to 18 million boxes contributed to the difficulties.

Bill Nichols, horticulturist for McDougall and Sons, Wenatchee, said that once the warehouse packing lines became overloaded, incoming fruit could not be packed in a timely manner. Growers are used to making money on 11-row cherries most years, but this season there was an abundance of small and poor-quality cherries.

“This delay resulted in cherries sitting around, maybe an extra week waiting to be packed and shipped. This delay reduced packouts and quality and probably led to more price adjustments,” he said.

Throw away

When the culls and small fruit were added together, warehouses could be throwing away as much as a third of the fruit, at a cost to the grower, and since the fruit was backed up, growers didn’t get to know their packouts in time to adjust their selective picking.

Eric Shrum, orchard manager at Orchard View Farms, The Dalles, Oregon, said it might have been best for some growers not to pick their crop at all, depending on the quality and the marketing situation. He recommends picking one bucket of fruit and taking it into the packing house where staff can decide if field sorting could bring it up to a quality where it would be worthwhile packing. Fruit prices should be a factor, although this season prices could change from the beginning of the day to the end.

Gale said warehouses need to communicate with growers about how much fruit is waiting to be packed so that they can make better decisions at the orchard. In the past, growers have not had to consider whether to leave whole blocks unharvested unless the orchard had been rained on or was an undesirable variety, such as Lambert. This year, growers found out they shouldn’t have picked only when it was too late.

He estimates that it costs about 25 cents a pound to pick cherries, plus 30 cents a pound to cover fixed costs. When it comes time to pick, if the return is more than 25 cents, a grower will go ahead and pick to try to pay down some of the fixed costs that have already been accumulated. A grower needs $24 a box f.o.b. to see any profit.

Denny Jones, general manager of Allan Brothers, Yakima, Washington, said problems were exacerbated this year by the lack of demand for processing cherries. “Normally, you would be able to find something that would capture your picking costs, to have a little bit of a safety net. A lot of guys had not signed up with insurance. A lot of guys didn’t have anything.”

Best advice

Gale said warehouse field representatives are supposed to visit growers’ orchards every week and give them the best advice, but some growers were told to pick their cherries even though the warehouse couldn’t handle them. “I’ve had growers who picked on Tuesday, and their fruit was being dumped in the canyons on Wednesday,” he said. “That’s flat out wrong.”

If a warehouse tells a grower to pick the crop, it should try at least to return the cost of picking, he said. “There’s supposed to be a partnership between the growers and the warehouse, and this year that partnership seemed to be dissolved from the warehouse side. In a light year, they want all the cherries they can get, and if you want to take your cherries to another place, they will take you to court.

“This cherry industry has been a good deal for a long time, and we’re at a crossroads,” he added. “We need new markets for at least another 10 million boxes of cherries. We cannot afford to continue to do things the same way we have been doing for the last 50 years. We need new people to eat cherries. Of course, we have to raise quality stuff. We’re going to give you the best product we can based on what Mother Nature allows us to do. This year, there were a lot of good cherries out there, but we didn’t get them moved in a timely manner. We need more packing capacity. There’s a hundred growers in the Wenatchee Valley right now looking for a home. Maybe in 2011 we’re going to be looking at a huge cherry crop again.”

Shrum sees the potential for mechanical thinning to help growers manage their crop loads in the future and said growers could improve their packouts by doing some field sorting, even though it might increase picking costs by five or ten cents a pound. “We’ve been doing it with apples and pears for a long time. With cherries, we may be headed that direction.

“In our area, there are growers who are financially distressed; the first thing they cut out of their budget is pruning,” he added. “The thing we have to do as an industry is grow the fruit the consumer wantslarge, high-quality fruit.”

Nichols advised the industry to try to look at the past season’s experiences in a positive way.

“We can look at this as a big correction that could influence our planting rates, and pruning practices, and other things, and perhaps this correction will result in a better and stronger industry.”