YAKIMA — Everything from tiny leafhoppers spreading little cherry disease to bad weather and big price increases on supplies made 2022 a rough year for Yakima Valley cherry growers.
But many remain hopeful as the 2023 season approaches, and among the positive news stressed at Friday’s 80th annual Cherry Institute meeting at the Yakima Convention Center was this: Central Washington has a popular product in sweet cherries.
“Don’t give up on Rainiers. The demand is there — we just need to get a good crop off,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, during his opening remarks Friday morning.
Thurlby had similar anecdotes about all varieties grown in Central Washington, as retailers and consumers continue to rank cherries highly among the array of fruit available in supermarkets and elsewhere.
He reviewed data from the 2022 statewide cherry crop, a 34.5 percent decline from 2021 as announced in December. Snow and cold in April led to pollination and other problems, causing a later and smaller 2022 crop of 13.3 million 20-pound boxes, compared to 20.3 million the previous year.
The reduced amount of cherries led to higher prices and fewer sales both domestically and worldwide, but did not diminish the demand for one of Washington’s signature fruits, Thurlby and other Northwest Cherry Growers officials said.
“It was a difficult 2022 season. … The reality was we just didn’t have enough cherries for those (Asian) markets,” said Kevin Hu, director of international operations for the cherry growers group.
Hu and James Michael, the organization’s vice president of marketing for North America, reviewed several surveys of both American and Taiwanese consumers indicating their preference for Pacific Northwest-grown cherries and their knowledge of the fruit’s health benefits.
The trick is growing enough of them to satisfy domestic and foreign markets and provide a competitive price against cherries from other countries or areas of the country, Michael and Hu said.
Little cherry disease update
Besides poor weather, 2022 saw the continued spread of two strains of little cherry disease, which causes smaller, lighter-colored fruit with damaged, mottling skin.
These strains, which produce identical visual damage to cherries but are actually different diseases, are little cherry virus and the X disease phytoplasma, Scott Harper of Washington State University’s plant pathology department said during a presentation at Friday’s event.
“Since 2018-19, X disease has been the No. 1 pathogen in the Pacific Northwest,” Harper said.
He said WSU’s research team has been testing 3,000 to 4,000 samples of potentially infected fruit and trees annually the past five years, and about 30 percent of those samples test positive for X disease. And the highest concentrations of X disease-infected trees are in the Yakima Valley.
“Anything (testing results) above 10 percent sets off my panic threshold,” Harper added.
Little cherry disease, in either variety, is spread by tiny insects collectively described as leaf hoppers. Two common species are the primary vectors for the pathogen, and once trees are infected, they can spread the disease through root grafting.
Therefore, removing infected trees once the disease is detected is the most important thing growers can do to stop little cherry disease from spreading, Harper said.
Another key element is controlling leafhoppers by limiting the weeds they like to eat, such as dandelions, mallow, goosefoot and clover, he said. This can be done through ground coverings in orchards and pesticides.
“Their removal is the most effective way of slowing the epidemic,” he added. “Tree removal, vector (insect) removal, weed removal — it’s not easy, but it is effective and can be done. This is not hopeless.”
One positive result from the colder and snowier spring in 2022 was that it slowed the spread of leafhoppers and X disease, WSU researchers found — especially in North Central Washington areas such as Wenatchee.
“Cold weather in some ways is a great thing to try and keep the disease under control. It does not like the cold,” Harper said, noting that those conditions also lead to reduced cherry crops.
Hoping for a rebound
Thurlby, the Northwest Cherry Growers president, said early forecasts predict a third straight year of La Nina weather conditions: a cooler spring with a hot summer.
“Late in spring, temperatures will warm rapidly, leading to faster vegetation growth and flash flood risks,” Thurlby said, citing the Browning World Climate Bulletin. “Hopefully, that warmup will happen closer to late April this year.”
He noted that cherry-growing districts in Washington saw the third-coldest April temperatures and the most May and June precipitation since 1948. The conditions resulted in a smaller and later-developing crop.
This past year, only 2.86 million boxes of cherries shipped in June, compared to 8.29 million in 2021 and a five-year average of 8.91 million boxes during the month.
While Thurlby said 8.16 million boxes of cherries shipped during July 2022, compared to a five-year average of 12.22 million, those boxes were sent later than the usual early-July peak for cherry shipments and sales.
That smaller crop combined with the national trend of inflation meant higher store prices for cherries in 2022, both here and abroad. The average U.S. retail ad price per pound for cherries between June 5 and Aug. 28 ranged from $5.81 in early June to $3.90 in late July, Thurlby said.
He noted that Northwest cherries had a 72 percent higher price on July 4, 2022, compared to the same date one year earlier. By comparison, grapes, strawberries and blueberries’ prices increased about 16 percent over the same period.
Overseas, Northwest Cherry Growers shipped 3.05 million 20-pound boxes of cherries, an amount only 23 percent of 2022’s total harvest. In typical years, about 30 percent of Washington-grown sweet cherries are sold internationally, noted Hu, the director of international operations.
The lack of quality cherries available for export markets led to prices as high as $15 per pound in Asian countries, Hu said. That led to few early-season displays of cherries in foreign markets, although there were larger and more numerous displays after mid-July, as production increased and prices dropped to the $7- to $9-per-pound price range.
Canada remains the largest export market for Northwest cherries, Hu said, with Taiwan and Mexico two other reliable spots for cherry sales each year.
China and other southeast Asian nations continue to have potential, provided that additional barriers such as tariffs can be resolved.
And India remains an untapped market, with an approximate target audience of 10 million customers, Hu said.
“If 10 million families buy 1 pound of cherries each year, that’s still a half-million boxes (exported there),” Hu added. “I’ll take it!”
Organizers said nearly 500 registered participants attended Friday’s Cherry Institute, and there were 50 exhibitors at the trade show.