Dr. Desmond O’Rourke

Dr. Desmond O’Rourke speaking in Wenatchee, Wash. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Washington’s fresh cherry packers will continue to be allowed to ship 12-row red cherries, members of the Washington Cherry Marketing Committee decided at their meeting in early December.

The committee commissioned economist Dr. Desmond O’Rourke to study the financial impact on the industry of shipping 12-row cherries, the smallest size packed.

B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, said some industry people favored eliminating 12-row cherries from the market because of the increasing volumes of cherries being produced in the Northwest and the fear that small cherries would drag down prices. In the early 1990s, the committee eliminated size 11.5 and 12 row Rainier cherries in a successful attempt to keep that variety viable and profitable.

However, O’Rourke reported that it was difficult to separate the impact of small cherries on the market from other factors, such as rain or extreme heat.

Committee members wanting to retain size 12 cherries pointed out that Northwest cherry packers now have sophisticated sorting equipment to ensure both the internal and external quality of cherries and that the volume of small cherries shipped is very small. O’Rourke reported that over the past five years, 1.8 percent of fresh red cherries shipped from the Pacific Northwest were 12 row. Shipments of small sizes tend to be higher at the start of the season when fewer cherries are available to buyers. They pointed out that other states that the Northwest competes against, such as California, have no size restrictions.

Committee members voted 11 to 5 in favor of allowing 12 row cherries to be shipped from Washington.

Thurlby said the marketing committee creates an avenue for the industry to discuss raising the bar on quality. “It was positive to see it was a good, serious discussion,” he said. “Some people were disappointed about not getting 12-row cherries eliminated, but it’s those types of discussions this industry needs to have to continue to be successful.”