Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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Rain takes a bite out of Washington’s cherry crop


WENATCHEE — A light but stellar Washington cherry crop has been damaged by heavy rain, and while some fruit was ruined overall industry losses may not be as large as first thought.

What previously was estimated as a crop of 18.3 million, 20-pound boxes now is probably a 17-million-box crop, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, the industry promotional organization.

A total of 7.3 million boxes had been shipped from the start of the season, May 18, through June 20. Virtually all were picked before the June 18 rain, Thurlby said.

“It wasn’t a horrible rainstorm. It could have been worse. It stayed cool and the wind blew,” he said.

Wind helps dry cherries and cool weather afterward reduces crop-ruining cracking.

Two weeks of cool weather before the rain is pushing the production peak of 500,000-plus boxes per day out to the Fourth of July, he said.

The Fourth is a traditional marketing target, and there still will be plenty of fruit for the Fourth with promotions and ad prices remaining in place, Thurlby said.

Heavy rain struck throughout Central Washington and from Oregon to Canada. Picking mostly ceased through Monday as growers and packers analyzed how much fruit could be salvaged.

“Cracks in the stembel are legal to pack if they are small and heal,” said Norm Gutzwiler, a Wenatchee grower.

“If prices are right, it can be sorted and make money for the grower. If not, they go to the processor (for brining) or you leave them on the tree,” Gutzwiler said.

It’s a matter of economics when it comes to high-tech packing house sorting and if prices are too low growers shouldn’t be picking, he said.

“Frankly, prices will have to go higher than they are,” Gutzwiler said, adding production and marketing will be in limbo a few days.

Gutzwiler, Thurlby and others said fruit size and quality had been exceptional until the rain.

Damage ranges up to 45 percent but will clean up in a week and later fruit will mature with no damage, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director at Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, the nation’s largest sweet cherry producer.

“We are extremely optimistic with good fruit size, lots of Skeenas (variety) coming on with great flavor and good demand,” Pepperl said.

Fourth of July cherries will be “awesome” and Stemilt will offer a special Kyle’s Pick brand, named for Stemilt co-owner Kyle Mathison, with high sugars and firmness and large size, he said.

Thurlby said two large Skeena growers in the Basin lost 20 percent. Skeena, a Canadian variety, is more susceptible to cracking. Wenatchee’s Stemilt Hill orchards sustained up to 40 percent damage and a larger grower in the Okanogan about 5 percent, he said.

Rain was less in The Dalles, Ore., said Brenda Thomas, president of Orchard View Farms Inc., Oregon’s largest cherry grower. Damage is manageable with the company’s new high-tech cherry sorter a huge help, she said.

Normal 10 percent cullage has risen to 20 to 30 percent, she said. The crop is later than Washington’s, with about two-thirds to go, she said.

Dave Taber, a grower in Oroville on the Canadian border, said multiple prior rains over several days already stressed cherries in the Okanogan. He said he probably lost 25 percent of his crop and estimated Rainiers in the area at 10 to 60 percent split, Skeena up to 40 percent, Lapin looking better at 15 percent and Sweetheart at 15 to 30, depending on location and crop load. Lighter crops with large fruit took the heaviest damage, Taber said.

Andy Handley, an East Wenatchee grower, said he lost about a third of this crop.