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Washington fruit leaders expect ‘short, good’ northwest cherry harvest

By Gabriel Garcia, The Wenatchee World
Published: May 17, 2024, 8:28am

WENATCHEE — “Short” and “good.”

That’s how Washington fruit industry leaders described this year’s upcoming northwest cherry harvest.

Northwest Cherries, the organization that oversees the cherry harvest in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Utah, estimated 17-18 million boxes of 20-pound cherries for the 2024 cherry harvest season at its regular board meeting Wednesday.

The northwest harvest season starts June 1, said B.J. Thurlby, Northwest Cherries president. The organization is managed by the Washington State Fruit Commission, of which Thurlby is also president.

Thurlby said it will be a “nice crop,” with “premium cherries,” according to reports from growers.

“I really think we are going to have beautiful cherries,” Thurlby said.

Last year’s crop was 18.7 million, 20-pound boxes of cherries, and he said this year’s crop will likely yield fewer boxes.

However, “if things go right, and we get good weather, we can be back to where we were last year, and be around 18.5 million (20-pound boxes).”

June and July will see the majority of the cherry harvest, while August will see 250,000 to 500,000 20-pound boxes, when it is normally around 2 million, Thurlby said.

“So it’s definitely going to be shorter this year,” Thurlby said. But the produce quality from the crop will be marketable, he added.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said this year’s crop will yield fewer than the “normal” crop of around 20 million boxes.

In the last three years, the the number of cherry boxes were: 18.7 million in 2023, 13.3 million in 2022, and 20.3 million in 2021.

“Good volume, with being promotable,” DeVaney said. “The report of growers is that the quality of the crop is good and an attractive crop to bring to market.”

Some of the higher elevation cherries usually picked during August were damaged by cold weather in the winter, which might explain why there won’t be as many cherries later in the season, DeVaney said.

Last year’s Washington cherry harvest was declared a disaster by the U.S. Department of Agriculture due to cold and hot weather conditions causing much of the cherry crop to bloom rapidly and cherries to enter the market simultaneously with California’s delayed cherry crop instead of sequentially.

DeVaney said the competition created low prices on the market with growers not receiving a lot of profits.

For example, DeVaney said the free on board price for dark sweet cherries last year was $1.76 per pound. This was 47% below the pricing in 2022 for a crop, with 13.3 million 20-pound boxes of cherries. The 2023 pricing was still 20% below 2021 pricing, when there was a more “normal” crop at 20.3 million boxes of 20-pound cherries, he said.

“Looks like it is setting up to be a very successful year for cherry growers in Washington in the Northwest this year,” DeVaney said. However, there’s always a fear of any surprise weather events that can change things, he added.

In April, the Washington State Department of Ecology declared a drought for the state. Devaney said rationing of water by irrigation districts will most likely begin in late summer or early fall, sparing the cherry season.

When it comes to labor costs for production “there’s always a concern,” DeVaney said.

This year in Washington state, agriculture workers can earn overtime after 40 hours for the first time. The foreign guest worker program many farmers use to employ labor workers, known as H-2A, has an Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) of $19.25 in Washington, up from $17.97 in 2023.

But a shorter cherry crop with “quality cherries” creates more optimism for growers to see good profit, as there might not be a lot of overtime needed, DeVaney explained.

“Having a slightly smaller crop, but still a good quality indicates growers are hopeful that they will be able to get good returns,” DeVaney said.

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