At Friday’s 76th Cherry Institute, Matt Whiting, a Washington State University horticulturist, painted a picture of China’s cherry production soaring to meeting an insatiable domestic demand, with new plantings of thousands of acres under cover in production areas that shift south and west and fetch returns of up to $12 per pound.

Whiting spent a month in 2019 as a visiting professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

And the nation is experimenting.

“They’re trying new systems, they’re trying new rootstocks,” Whiting said.

What’s more, Whiting believes China’s production has been undercounted for many years by many official statistics agencies throughout the world. In reality, China is probably the highest producing country for sweet cherries.

Tieton, a WSU cherry, is the nation’s No. 1 variety, but China has many of its own varieties, too. Most trees are single-leader with laterally trained branches under netting. U-pick is popular.

The Cherry Institute functions much like an annual meeting for the Northwest sweet cherry industry.

B.J. Thurlby, president of the Northwest Cherry Growers, said the 2019 crop shipped 23.3 million 20-pound box equivalents, with yellow varieties, such as Rainier, making up 12 percent of the crop.

About 35 percent of the 2019 crop was exported; 1.7 million boxes went to China, down from more than 3 million boxes in 2017 due to tariffs, but “still a lot of fruit,” Thurlby said.

A bright spot in the export game is Vietnam, which saw 112-percent growth over 2018, said Keith Hu, foreign marketing director for Northwest Cherry Growers.

Meanwhile, domestically, 98 percent of cherries are eaten fresh as a snack by hand, said James Michael, vice president of marketing in North America.

Other sessions included an update from breeder Per McCord on three yet-unnamed cherry cultivars entering Phase 3 trials in WSU’s breeding program, Whiting’s “back-to-the-future” recap of mechanical harvest for sweet cherries, research priorities for the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, new technologies for frost protection, calcium uptake and plenty of talks regarding little cherry disease.

—by Ross Courtney

2020 Cherry King crowned