It is late April, and all of us are hoping that frost season has come and gone for the year. As I was heading to a grower meeting in Grandview yesterday, I noticed that the temperature in the Yakima Valley was 54 degrees at 7:15 a.m. Certainly, the day was shaping up to be a great day for our bees and the pollination we need to set our tree fruit crops. In fact, based on degree days, this year so far is the fifth warmest we have seen in the past 15 years. In 2009, we saw the coldest January, February, and March in the past 20 years. In stating the obvious, the weather has as much impact on our crops as any other factor. The susceptibility of weather damage on soft fruit is constant threat throughout the year. On cherries, our growers go from fearing winter freeze, to spring frost to summer rain. Cherries remain a crop that is fraught with risk even in the years when the weather is cooperative.
Likewise, the weather has an impact on the buying habits of the people who eat our fruit. Over the years, I’ve had many retail produce department heads tell me that nothing like cherries and soft fruit evoke the true arrival of summer in the produce department. I spend a great deal of time in the winter analyzing market dynamics and shipment trends to all corners of the world. Last year’s record cherry crop … a crop that increased by 110% over the previous year … drove many markets to all time high unloads. One thing that continues to catch my eye, however, is the minimal growth we saw in the east coast markets.
This month I have spent several weeks meeting with retailers on the east coast and many produce merchandisers have said that sales could have been “much” better there last year had the weather not been so poor in June and into July. In researching this, I find that the annual precipitation in Philadelphia is usually around 41 inches per year. In 2009, Philadelphia had just over 60 inches of precipitation for the year. As a point of reference, in Seattle, the long-maligned “rainiest city in North America,” had a total of 38 inches of precipitation last year and averages about 37 inches of precipitation per year.
At the end of the day, does rainy, cold weather in the summer affect sales of our stone fruit? In the case of cherries I tend to agree that rainy summer days limit back yard barbeques and family outings where cherries are a natural menu item for outdoor eating activities. When looking at what items people buy along with cherries, it is obvious that outdoor cooking is a theme that cherries fit into. Consumers who buy cherries also buy ground beef, chicken, cheese, fresh salad components, strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, spreads, and cookies. Here in the “cherry nation” of the Pacific Northwest we have good reason to hope for warm spring and summer weather. The days that drive consumers to the lake, the park and to their backyard barbeques are days that we can expect a jump in cherry sales.
How does any of this apply to the fast approaching 2010 season? As previously mentioned, I have spent several weeks on the east coast this spring and I am pleased to report that the spring weather there has been optimal. It was 90 degrees in Philadelphia two weeks ago, 86 degrees in Boston, and 91 degrees in Pittsburgh. Last week in Cincinnati, the weather rose to over 90 degrees both days I was there … and it is only April.
So here’s to hoping that stone fruit consumers come out more frequently when the weather is warm and conducive to outside activities. For the first time in a couple of years I can say that both growing weather and selling weather appear to be optimal at this stage of our annual summer fruit campaign.