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New report highlights tough year for growers. Will apples, cherries be profitable?

July 8, 2022 Updated Fri., July 8, 2022 at 8:08 p.m.

A supervisor looks up at a worker pulling honey crisp apples off trees June 16, 2020, during a thinning operation at an orchard in Yakima, Wash.   (Spokesman-Review wire archives)
A supervisor looks up at a worker pulling honey crisp apples off trees June 16, 2020, during a thinning operation at an orchard in Yakima, Wash.  (Spokesman-Review wire archives)
By Cory McCoy Tri-City Herald

KENNEWICK – Bad weather and inflation are making things tough for growers in the Pacific Northwest this year, but a new snapshot suggests there might be a glimmer of hope.

A new report from Northwest Farm Credit Services suggests that growers in Washington are expected to break even for key crops, despite rising costs due to inflation and bad weather, although two of Washington’s most important fruit crops were hit the hardest.

Growers around the Tri-Cities and Mid-Columbia are key players in producing the majority of cherry and apple crops in the United States.

Apples

Washington grows more apples than any other state. In fact, Washington’s apple output in 2020 was about three times higher than the next four largest states combined, at an estimated $2.1 billion worth of apples. That shakes out to about 6.5 billion pounds of apples annually.

According to the report, the cost of transport is going to be one of the most significant factors in whether Washington growers will break even this year. With gas prices just beginning to fall from all-time highs, as well as record export costs, it has never been more expensive for Washington apple growers to get their products to market.

According to the Northwest FCS snapshot, the deciding factor will come down to whether crops are short for the third year in a row.

In a recent article for Good Fruit Grower, Kate Prengaman wrote that crop sizes averaged about 130 million boxes from 2014 to 2019, but 2020 and 2021 saw yields closer to 120 million due to bad weather.

Cherries

Growers have been keeping a close eye on cherries throughout the season, after an unseasonable and late cold snap in April and then unexpected showers in June right as the crop was nearing harvest.

Washington State University tree fruit expert Dr. Matthew Whiting said in June that the late cold weather may have saved many cherry orchards by pushing back the harvest just enough to reduce the risk of water damage.

Growers in the area took no risks, though, bringing in helicopters in early June to blow water off the fruit before it could start to develop cracks.

Cherries are also expected to be a break-even crop this year. Growers are more at risk of a loss than with apples because cherries are not considered a staple food in the way apples are.

Whiting said this year’s crop might be smaller, but it is also likely to result in larger and higher-quality fruit.

Hay and cattle

There’s good news for Washington’s hay growers, though.

The same late rain that threatened cherry crops, also damaged a significant portion of hay growth in the Mid-Columbia region. That rain came during the first cut of the season though, so growers should have ample time to make up for it. Many are expected to do three cuts this year.

Exporter Scot Courtright told the Herald last month that about 90% of the hay from that first cut will not be in exportable shape. As a result, dairy and cattle operations saw a veritable flood of lower quality hay. That was a silver lining for many, as the cost of feed was also heavily impacted by inflation and rising fuel costs.

Cattle is expected to end the season slightly profitable, while dairy looks to be profitable. The snapshot also suggests that reduced global dairy production could keep milk prices high and exports competitive.

Other crops

Some of Washington’s other cash craps are also expected to see profitable seasons.

Among them are potatoes, of which Washington is second only to Idaho in production with $753 million to Idaho’s $981 million in 2020.

Onions also will be profitable, with Northwest FCS estimating all warehoused product has been sold, keeping demand high.

Wheat production looks good as Washington growers watch for rust after the unseasonable June downpour. Washington is fourth in the nation in wheat production, at $942 million worth of crop in 2020.

That year, Washington was the number one producer of hops ($444.9 million), blueberries ($217.5 million) and pears ($170.6 million).

Pears are expected to see slight profits, and wine vineyard grapes are expected to see good profit.

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