WENATCHEE — Heavy rain and now blistering hot weather has made this a year to remember — or maybe quickly forget — for Washington cherry growers.
Recent rain and fickle weather earlier in the year decimated this year's early Northwest cherry crop and forced many growers to leave split fruit on the tree rather than pay the additional costs of harvest and packing.
Originally estimated as a moderate crop of up to 18 million 20-pound boxes, the crop is now expected to come in at much less than that, probably 13 to 14 million boxes -- if late harvest cherries are picked without further weather damage.
"No areas have been spared," said Roger Pepperl, marketing manager of Stemilt Growers, the nation's largest packer of sweet cherries. The Wenatchee-based company packs cherries from orchards all over the state.
Some orchards had such a light crop this year, they didn't have much to lose, he said. Late cherry varieties like Lapins, Skeena and Sweetheart grown in higher areas such as Wenatchee Heights and Stemilt Hill are still in relatively good condition, and harvest should continue into August, said Pepperl.
There's been great demand for cherries this year after a record 23-million-box crop last year, but packers won't come close to filling all the orders, Pepperl said.
"It's been one weather event after another. This will be a year to remember," he said.
Skins can split
Rain close to harvest is absorbed by the cherries and can cause their skins to split. The effect is worsened in hot weather. Thunderstorms Saturday and Monday included both, following bouts of heavy rain in cooler weather the previous two weeks.
Growers try to dry the cherries between storms by calling in low-flying helicopters or pulling fans or empty sprayers through the orchards. Drying over and over can add greatly to production costs and bruise the fruit. If the fruit is picked, sorting out a high percentage of splits can drive the packing costs higher than returns. Damaged cherries also greatly slows the sorting and packing process.
Lower elevation Bing cherries around Wenatchee have been extensively damaged. Fruit from earlier harvest areas in the state, including the Tri-Cities, Yakima and Mattawa, have also been hard hit by the rain. Orchards around The Dalles and Hood River, Ore., have also been heavily damaged by rain. Cherry marketers try to get stores to put cherries on sale for the Fourth of July and following weekend when harvest is normally at its peak.
Far short of visions
About 4.8 million boxes of cherries had been packed as of Sunday, far short of the 6 to 7 million boxes marketers had hoped to have available by this week, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers.