Northwest Cherry Growers released their initial crop estimate this week, predicting a harvest of 20.5 million boxes. 

That’s down somewhat from the past few seasons, including the record 26 million boxes in 2017. Growers in some areas suffered freeze damage in February and March, and the industry estimated earlier this year that production would be down about 3 million boxes due to tree removals driven by little cherry disease. 

After a warm start to the season, it’s been a relatively cool spring in much of the Pacific Northwest. The industry group, which represents sweet cherry growers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah, predicts a large spread in harvest timing between early and late growing regions. 

“In a year where many retailers are experiencing reduced store trips and customers are looking for a taste of summer, a strong June start and a longer crop is about as best as can be hoped for at this stage,” the group said in its news release. “Historically, this type of separation in degree days across the districts points to a full season where the industry will have 95-plus days of sales to move the crop.”

This estimate is the first in a series of crop projections that will be refined as the industry moves closer, and with more certainty, toward harvest. Next week, growers from around the region will gather via conference call for the annual 5-State Cherry Commission meeting on May 12.

What about exports, which in recent years accounted for 35 percent of the crop? While the pandemic’s impact on key Asian markets and the reduction in commercial flights does complicate the export picture, Northwest Cherry Growers said last week that it still sees plenty of opportunity. Markets in China, Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam are opening, and retailers and consumers are eager for cherries, Keith Hu, vice president of international business development said. 

The reduction in commercial flights may be offset by dropping fuel prices that make cargo flights more cost effective.

“Based on what I am hearing about more flights and lower fuel costs to those markets this summer, I think that shipping 6 million 20-pound equivalent boxes this year is realistic,” president B.J. Thurlby said in a statement. “As the 2020 crop is shorter than we have seen in several years, I think 6 million boxes may end up being 30 percent of this crop.”

by Kate Prengaman