YAKIMA, Wash. — Northwest cherry marketers don’t plan to be late for Independence Day fireworks from U.S. retailers.
For the first time in six years, the industry expects ample volume of cherries in June, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers.
Depending on weather, the first shipments of cherries in the state could start from June 1 through June 3.
“I like that scenario for the growers because it really gives you a chance to get going before the Fourth of July,” Thurlby said. “The key is that we are going to be able to tell every retailer that cherries will be real opportunity the last couple weeks of June and the Fourth of July holiday,” he said.
Provided rain events are kept to a minimum, Thurlby said growers are looking forward to a good year.
“An earlier crop will lead to a full crop for the Fourth of the July for the first time since 2007,” Thurlby said.
The record crop of 23 million 20-pound boxes of Northwest cherries last year was a 23% increase over the 2011 crop.
The Northwest will likely harvest a cherry crop in the 18 million to 20 million carton range in 2013, said Steve Clement, chief operating officer and general manager for Sage Fruit Co.
As with any years, swings in temperatures and rain could slow, speed or interrupt timing of the crop, Clement said.
“The question is just how spread out it will be,” Clement said.
While last year was a record crop, Clement said it was spread out nicely and weathered multiple rain events better than expected. That was unlike the 2009 crop year, Clement said, when the harvest was very compressed.
Most shippers expected a favorable marketing season.
“We expect to have a large crop but a long shipping window — probably one of the longest we have ever seen,” said Brianna Shales, communications manager for Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee.
With good weather, the Northwest could have more than 20 million cartons, said Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing for Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan. The crop appears to be setting up for good quality, he said.
Northwest shippers were hoping for less rain this year than they experienced a year ago.
Well more than a dozen rain events in 2012 caused some interruptions in marketing, Riggan said.
“It just knocked the quality edge out because every time you got out of one you got a new one,” he said.
Quality-related adjustments upon arrival caused a reduction in returns for growers, he said.
Chris Falk, vice president of Washington Fruit & Produce Co., said retailers expect cherries to be readily available for Fourth of July promotions.
But some frost damage and spotty pollinating weather has made exact predictions for June difficult, he said.
“We anticipate that supplies in July will be good, so we are encouraging retailers to promote heavily post-July Fourth as well,” he said.
One shipper said the crop may nearly match last year’s record output.
The state may produce about 22 million cartons of cherries this year, according to Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers.
With rising cherry production in the state, Pepperl said there is quality inflation.
“Most people aren’t packing 12-row anymore,” he said. “Getting that fruit out of there is a good thing.”
The typical cherry harvest moves from Matawa and the Tri-Cities to the Yakima Valley, followed by Oregon and the later districts.
“If it gets too warm in a later district, those cherries will come on top of earlier ones, and that can make a little bit of a challenge in packing and selling,” he said. “Right now it is shaping up to be a great season,” Clement said.
U.S. retailers have plenty of motivation to pay attention to cherries, Thurlby said.
Thurlby said the Northwest shipping season overlap with California cherries last year was 22 days, up from 10 days of overlap in 2011. Less overlap is expected with California this year, he said.
Thurlby predicts the Northwest will have nearly 7 million cartons of cherries in June this year, up from 5 million cartons in June 2012.
July may yield shipments of about 10 million cartons, down from 13 million cartons last year he said. August shipments of cherries from the Northwest may total 2 million to 3 million cartons, which is down from 4.6 million cartons a year ago.
Even with the stronger early crop this year, Thurlby said that the challenge for the Northwest is to get retailers in the U.S. and around the world to continue to promote cherries throughout the summer.
“The Northwest cherry deal is not a June and early July deal. This year it is a June, July and first two weeks of August deal,” he said.
The Northwest industry shipped 4.5 million cartons of fruit in August last year. That was down from 5.1 million boxes shipped in August 2011, but up sharply from August shipments of just 1.5 million cartons in 2006 and a paltry 240,000 cartons in 1999.
Using five field merchandisers, a couple of whom the group shares with Chilean cherry exporters, the Northwest Cherry Growers connect with key retail accounts, Thurlby said. Northwest Cherry Growers weights it $1.6 million plus in domestic promotions toward the back end of the season, in late July and early August.