KENNEWICK – Bing cherries have been beset with growing problems this year that are reducing the size of the crop.
The Northwest’s most popular cherry variety could be in short supply in 2016, after the five-state Cherry Commission this week lowered its outlook for the season to 18.3 million 20-pound boxes. That’s about a million boxes less than was predicted just two weeks ago.
The Tri-City Herald reported that farmers are warning that if conditions worsen, some Bing orchards could go unpicked.
Mike Taylor of Stemilt Growers said at the meeting that about 30 percent of the fruit on the trees would have to be culled if harvested. He described the Bing crop as a “disaster.”
A big rainstorm, which might split the fruit, could lead some growers to decide it’s not worth paying workers to pick their trees, Taylor said.
“It’s one weather event away from no pick,” Taylor said.
Washington is the nation’s leading producer of cherries and contributes more than 83 percent of the total Northwest harvest.
The new forecast is in line with the region’s three-year average of 18.5 million boxes. The 2015 harvest came in at more than 19 million boxes and was valued at $827 million.
Bing growers in the state are struggling after a rapid bloom in the spring apparently harmed fruit formation. Buds did not set well and orchards are plagued by growing problems.
Growers are banking on high quality among other varieties to carry the market.
“Rainiers and Chelan are looking nice,” observed Mark Zirkle, a Selah-area grower.
Mattawa grower Frank Lyall said the Rainiers are somewhat sparse, but the quality of the fruit on trees is high. He’s chiefly worried about finding enough pickers.
“Labor is as tight as ever,” he said.
Northwest growers began harvesting more than a week ago.
The Washington harvest arrived early and hot after a weak California harvest.
California will ship about 5 million boxes this year, down from 6.3 million in 2015. A warm winter coupled with rainy growing-season weather hammered farmers. Quality issues halved its exports too. California exported a quarter of its harvest instead of the usual half.
B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, said California’s woes are an opportunity for Washington growers. Foreign customers are starved for fresh cherries.
Ken Galka, air cargo operations manager for the Port of Seattle, said China is actively shopping for Northwest cherries. A Chinese carrier flew a load out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last week.
Taiwan, Shanghai and Incheon are the top destinations, he said.
James Michael, promotion director for the Washington State Fruit Commission, said cherries are an easy sell. Retailers love them because they’re the most valuable product in grocery stores in July and customers love them for the taste and benefits, he said.
An estimated 76 million Americans buy fresh cherries every season, about half of them impulse purchases.
“Cherries are an item that speaks summer,” Thurlby said.
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