A good future lies ahead for Washington’s fresh cherry industry, despite some marketing difficulties during the 2006 season, horticulturist Lee Gale believes.

“There’s going to be a future in cherries, but over the next five years, how are we going to get to that future?” he asked during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual convention.

The industry is going through unprecedented growth.

In 2005, the state produced almost 103,000 tons of the best quality cherries it had ever grown.

“Those things jumped off the shelf,” Gale said. “Buyers were whining because they could not get enough cherries.”

In 2006, Washington produced 117,000 tons of fresh cherries, and many more didn’t get picked because of weather-related damage. Some producers tried to send rain-damaged fruit to the market, because of high prices, and it hurt everyone involved in the cherry deal, he said.

More ahead

Gale, a horticulturist with Northwest Wholesale, Inc., Wenatchee, said it’s possible that production could continue to increase by 10 to 20 percent annually.

“Do we have the capacity to pack, harvest, and ship it?” he asked. “I don’t think so.”

He urged growers to communicate with their marketers all the way from bloom until harvest so that the marketing agency has crop estimates it can use to establish new customers. “We can’t, as an industry, underestimate this crop by 20 percent and expect to have profitable cherries,” he said.

Quality standards

Looking ahead, Gale sees a need for better horticultural practices, specific to variety, and tighter quality standards as production continues to increase.

Quality will be redefined, he believes. “There’s going to be no market for small cherries. We’re killing ourselves if we’re packing 12-row cherries, or 111⁄2-row, and maybe 11-row.”

Not only must the cherries be big, but they must have good color and firmness, too, he stressed.

“The retailers are going to demand it. Do we want to be in control of it ourselves, and put our own standards on our own fruit? It’s something we need to look at.”

Finding enough labor to harvest the cherries is likely to be one of the biggest challenges in the next five years, he said. Growers will need to start thinking about recruiting pickers 60 to 90 days before harvest.

Workers are attracted to pedestrian-friendly orchards. They know the good orchards—those that produce 10 to 15 tons of fruit per acre that can be picked from shorter ladders.

“If your orchard won’t attract workers, maybe you should consider doing something else with that block,” Gale said.

He urged growers to be honest with themselves. “Am I producing a marketable cherry? I need to be better than average. I can’t be average and expect that will get me down the road paying the bills. You have to be better than average—top of the pool. If you’re not that kind of grower, you need to get out of the orchard business.”

He encouraged growers to consider their options before they don’t have any left. “Don’t go out of business because you failed to make changes. If you’re not good at raising cherries, get out and plant apples.”