Dinged by bings, Northwest cherry outlook dims

Nervous cherry growers are apparently behind the small number of helicopters reported taking off from the Richland Airport earlier this week.
Nervous cherry growers are apparently behind the small number of helicopters reported taking off from the Richland Airport earlier this week. Tri-City Herald

Love bing cherries? Buy ’em if you can.

The Northwest’s most popular cherry variety could be in short supply in 2016 after a tough growing season that left trees laden with questionable fruit.

The five-state Cherry Commission lowered its outlook for the season to 18.3 million 20-pound boxes during a meeting Wednesday in Richland.

Leaders blamed bing conditions for the outlook and said if conditions worsen, some bing orchards could go unpicked.

Mike Taylor of Stemilt Growers told Yakima and Tri-City growers at the meeting that about 30 percent of the fruit on the trees would have to be culled if harvested. He described the bing crop as a “disaster.”

A fruit-damaging rain could lead some growers to decide it’s not worth paying workers to pick their trees.

“It’s one weather event away from no pick,” Taylor said.

It’s one weather event away from no pick.

Mike Taylor, Stemilt Growers

Stemilt grows cherries in Mattawa and Wenatchee and is one of the region’s largest producers at 2 million boxes annually. Leaving trees unpicked should not be damaging, but leaves few winners.

“The birds are happy,” he said.

Wednesday is the second time the Cherry Commission has lowered its 2016 expectations. It predicted a 19-plus million box harvest just two weeks ago, citing bing conditions then as well.

The new forecast is in line with the region’s three-year average of 18.5 million boxes. The 2015 harvest came in at more than 19 million boxes and was valued at $827 million.

18.3 million boxes 2016 forecast

19 million boxes2015 actual

23 million boxes 2014 actual (record)

18.5 million boxes (three-year average)

Washington is the nation’s leading producer of cherries and contributes more than 83 percent of the total Northwest harvest.

Bing growers in the state are struggling after a rapid bloom in the spring apparently harmed fruit formation. Buds did not set well and orchards are plagued by doubles and other problems.

Despite the bing issues, Stemilt’s Taylor is optimistic 2016 will be a serviceable year because Chelans and other varieties are looking strong.

He’s not alone. Growers are banking on high quality in the other varieties to carry the market, even if the yields are below normal.

“Rainiers and Chelan are looking nice,” observed Mark Zirkle, a Selah-area grower.

Mattawa grower Frank Lyall said the Rainiers are somewhat sparse, but the quality of the fruit on trees is high. He’s chiefly worried about finding enough pickers.

“Labor is as tight as ever,” he said.

Labor is as tight as ever.

Frank Lyall, Mattawa grower

Northwest growers began harvesting more than a week ago, well ahead of 2015’s May 23 start date.

The Washington harvest arrived early and hot after a weak California harvest. California wraps its season with a Memorial Day push that put bing cherries in local grocery stores this week.

California will ship about 5 million boxes this year, down from 6.3 million in 2015. A warm winter coupled with rainy growing season weather hammered farmers. Quality issues halved its exports too. California exported a quarter of its harvest instead of the usual half.

B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, said California’s woes are an opportunity for Washington growers. Foreign customers are starved for fresh cherries.

China, Canada and Korea were the largest export markets for Northwest cherries in 2015.

Ken Galka, air cargo operations manager for the Port of Seattle, said China is actively shopping for Northwest cherries. A Chinese carrier flew a load out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last week. Several carriers are in the cherry-hauling market for the first time.

Taiwan, Shanghai and Incheon are the top destinations, he said.

The fruit commission’s Thurlby said the challenge in 2016 will be balancing demand from retailers with growers’ ability to supply fresh fruit during the frenzied, compressed season.

“It’s going to be a flat-out sprint from the middle of June to the middle of July,” Thurlby said.

It’s going to be a flat-out sprint from the middle of June to the middle of July.

B.J. Thurlby, Washington Tree Fruit Commission

Cherry growers pay an assessment of $18 per ton to the commission to promote the industry. For 2016, the commission will promote the positive health impacts of cherries and will highlight growers and farms.

James Michael, promotion director for the Washington State Fruit Commission, promised a campaign that pushes cherries from June to July and into August if necessary.

He called cherries an easy sell. Retailers love them because they’re the most valuable product in grocery stores in July and customers love them for the taste and benefits.

An estimated 76 million Americans buy fresh cherries every season, about half of them impulse purchases.

The commission will promote cherries around outdoor-oriented holidays such as Father’s Day and the Fourth of July.

“Cherries are an item that speaks summer,” Thurlby said.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell