As I sit here in my office in Yakima, Washington, on April 7, it’s cold and rainy outside. In Washington, we just came through the rainiest March on record, and the view from the window tells me the season has yet to give way to what most of us would call “springtime conditions.”
By most standards, this past winter was a bell ringer for the Northwest. Eastern Washington saw 61 inches of snow, exceeding normal snowfall that is closer to 42 inches, which made all of my skiing friends happy but made winter orchard work more challenging.
The average daily temperature was 6 to 10 degrees colder than normal for December through February; our growing region saw the coldest winter since 1985 (only 1949 was colder than 1985), which makes this the third-coldest winter on record.
Growers in upper regions near Wenatchee, Washington, reported they still had 10 inches of snow in their orchards in early April. Washington State University cherry guru Matthew Whiting tells me he had snow layered over the floors of his test orchards in Prosser, Washington, for longer than has ever been recorded there.
While we have seen quite a few days climb into the 60 degree Fahrenheit temperature range, as of early April, the total number of degree-day units built up was not even close to those we had seen the past three years (see chart).
However, while bloom is behind the past several years — though not behind the bloom timing we saw from 2008 to 2012 — a close examination of some local cherry and apricot orchards show that fruit buds are slowly being coaxed into bloom.
As a result, the message to the world produce trade is that Northwest cherries will begin harvest in a more traditional timing window, opening near the end of the first week of June. With a little luck and a warm May, we should be able to get volume and momentum rolling in time for the U.S. July 4 holiday.
I am estimating that the largest portion of the crop will come off in July, and for the first time in three years we will be back in the cherry business in August.
As always, the trade media is already asking for a crop estimate, and while we all know that any guess at this stage of the game is “pie in the sky,” I expect the industry will be in the range of 20 million 20-pound equivalent boxes this summer. That matches the five-year average volume from 2012 to 2016.
While none of us can control the weather, the Washington State Fruit Commission can control how we help set the table in the marketplace for summer harvest. Our team has been running since early February, meeting with retailers, importers and the worldwide media in an effort to make sure that our fruit is a key part of the world’s summer merchandising and menu plans.
Certainly, our bread and butter for stone fruit sales is the North American market, and programs and media focus will be strong here on our home turf.
From an export perspective, the Northwest Cherry Growers will run promotion programs in 19 countries/markets this summer, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Australia, Brazil, China/Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore.
Despite a change in the U.S. political landscape, we have applied for and received funding for our five-state production region of just over $1.8 million. Matched with grower dollars, we will spend 60 percent of our promotion budget in the export markets in 2017.
Every Northwest cherry season plays out differently and, as a result, every promotion year is different based on when and where we align our promotional activity for the crop. Every year we try to infuse new activities into our overall programs.
New this year will be Northwest Cherry Care and Handling programs in the two emerging markets of Myanmar and Cambodia.
Brisk economic development and a growing middle class throughout Southeast Asia drew us to look into the potential of promoting in these markets, studying potential emerging markets and assessing any technical/phytosanitary issues that would keep us from shipping fruit there.
The capital of Myanmar is Naypyidaw, but the largest economic growth is in the import hub of Yangon City, where our meetings took place. The country has begun to open up to foreign direct investments under a new civilian-led reformist government, and its economy is quite diversified.
The most important sector of the economy is services, which has been growing steadily in the last few years and now accounts for over 38 percent of its GDP. The share of agriculture has been declining and now represents 36 percent of GDP, while industry contributes the remaining 26 percent of GDP.
Most of the foreign investments come from Japan, Korea, China and Singapore. In our initial market visit we saw many Korean and Japanese brands around the city (Lotte, LG, Aeon, Hyundai, etc.).
According to Myanmar governmental data, its GDP per capita is about US$1,300 and GDP per capita PPP is about US$4,950.
Our initial assessment of Yangon City is that it looks like Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 10 years ago. Vietnam has become a high-end market that takes volume on large size fruit and continues to increase consumption of Northwest cherries each year.
The total population of Cambodia is about 16 million and the median age of the population is 24.2.
The largest city, Phnom Penh, has around 5 million people and is developing quickly: New roads, bridges, apartments/condos and office buildings are being built or completed all over the city and a new airport is close to being finished.
Numerous foreign investments have flooded into the market in recent years, and many well-known international brands have entered the market.
We also noticed many trendy restaurants and cafés have opened in the downtown area that is tailored to younger crowds and middle income and above families. Cambodia’s GDP per capita is about US$1,021 and GDP per capita PPP is about US$3,278. The Cambodian government is aiming to maintain the 7-plus percent annual growth.
There appears to be adequate cold storage in Phnom Penh, which is vital as the summer temperature could reach 100 degrees F with low humidity.
Import duty for Northwest cherries is 7.5 percent plus 10 percent VAT. The goal will be to enter the market by working with one or two key retail groups to merchandise and promote our fruit. As the market leaders gain traction in selling cherries, our hope is that other retailers and importers will jump on the Northwest cherry band wagon.
We continue to implement cherry health research projects that can lead to meaningful storylines that help us generate consumer interest in our fruit. The process of developing meaningful findings is a slow one.
In 2015, we applied for and received a $70,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Agriculture to study the effects of our cherries in relation to the gut health of obese and diabetic mice.
The lead researcher and developer of the project is Giuliana Noratto, a food scientist and Ph.D. in the Food Science and Technology department at Texas A&M University.
After a year and a half of feeding Northwest cherries to laboratory mice, Noratto is preparing to submit her findings to the broader research community in a report called “Positioning cherries among super fruits for intestinal health.”
Overall, her research produced some positive results (which need to be explored further). In layman’s terms, her findings showed improved liver function, improved digestive function and anti-inflammatory benefits that positively affected mouse obesity and diabetes.
Noratto is in the process of preparing to share her findings at several key health focused conventions, and she is submitting her findings for peer review in the scientific publication Food Chemistry and Food Function.
That’s just a quick summary of what’s taking us into another year in the cherry business. Here’s to a great — and profitable — harvest this year. •
– B.J. Thurlby is president of Northwest Cherries.