The final sweet cherry shipments from the Pacific Northwest left the industry this weekend, bringing an end to a challenging, but record-breaking season.  Here at Northwest Cherry Growers, we have been meeting with numerous retailers, growers, and sales-desk personnel across the industry. It appears that no grower, sales agent, marketer, or buyer was immune to the challenges we faced this year. We shipped a record-sized crop of over 23.2 million 20-pound-equivalent boxes in 2012.  For a variety of reasons, the industry struggled to gain the sales momentum needed to successfully navigate the entirety of the season.

None of us would have dreamed that we would have 16 separate rain events across the growing districts this season. Each rain event caused anxiety in every corner of the business, leading to slowdowns in harvest, packing, and buying. As a result, some domestic and export buyers became hesitant and cautious as market confusion became a constant. One of our key retail merchandisers summed up the season well: “There were several points in the season where we just backed away for a couple days to let the market smooth out, so we could find the type of cherries our consumers demand.”

In this business, we occasionally need to step back and take stock of the positives that come with a season. This year, our cherries were the most-advertised product in produce and grocery circular ads for four weeks straight, and in the top five for ten weeks straight from late June through mid-August. Despite slower sell-through in some markets, we saw record retail advertising activity this season, which is a key factor in maintaining consumer awareness.  We saw demand exceed supply on the Rainier crop. We saw China increase its volume by over a million boxes to 2.2 million 20-pound boxes this year. We saw over 655,000 boxes go into Korea, an increase of more than 87% from the previous year’s record. And, we saw record shipments to Australia that exceeded 434,000 boxes, up 31% over last year’s record shipments.

Some key statistics from the season are:

• The shipped crop was 23.3 million 20-pound-equivalent boxes.

• The Northwest shipped for 89 days in 2012.  The season ran 94 days in 2011, versus 84 days in 2010 and 74 days in 2009.

• First shipment was on June 7 as compared to June 13 in 2011 and June 8 in 2010.

• The 10-year average start date is now June 8.

• California packed just over 8.5 million 18-pound-equivalent boxes this year, up from 6.1 million in 2011.

• The Rainier cherry pack was just shy of 2.3 million 15-pound boxes in 2012, making it about 7% of the shipped crop. That’s 11.5% more than the record set in 2011, and up 14% from 2009.

• Export totals for the year are at 7.9 million boxes or 35.3% of the crop, compared to 5.7 million in 2011, the previous volume record.

• The industry averaged 434,952 boxes per day in July, versus 364,000 per day in July 2011.

• The industry had 26 days of 400,000-plus box shipments, compared to 12 days in 2011.

The bottom line is that we have the best growers in the world…and a great product.  We will never stop needing more markets and more consumers looking to make cherries a healthy part of their diets.  While the cherry business is the riskiest proposition in tree fruit, with ever-increasing markets, press attention, and documented health research, it is a safe bet that we have many successful seasons ahead.