The start of the Pacific Northwest cherry season last season was so late that most grower-shippers missed the lucrative July Fourth holiday, and that’s a milestone that industry officials say they hope isn’t soon repeated.

Whether the industry gets its wish for an earlier start this season will depend on weather between bloom and harvest.

“Last year we missed anybody east of the Rockies, so we should have promotable volume for the Fourth this year — that’s our plan,” said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co.

The 2012 season appears a bit earlier in some production areas, although Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., said he doesn’t expect harvest to begin until June 12 — about seven days later than normal.

If the first bing doesn’t come off until about June 25, he said marketers may be hard pressed to make a June 27 ad ahead of the July Fourth holiday.

Nevertheless, he said Stemilt should have plenty of the earlier chelans, beginning about June 20.

Barring any bad weather, such as frost, hail or untimely rains between now and harvest, Pepperl said the industry has the potential to produce a record 22 million 20-

pound box equivalents this season.

Based on increased acreage, production could range between 18 million and 24 million boxes.

“If it goes the way it should, we should have a record crop we’re going to have to market,” he said.

That compares to the compressed 2011 season, where the industry moved about 18.3 million boxes, the second largest crop on record, according to the Yakima, Wash.-based trade group Northwest Cherry Growers.

Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, said all indications point to near-normal timing for the start of the dark sweet cherry harvest and strong volumes of large fruit.

Superfresh Growers’ volume also will be enhanced by newer orchards of dark sweet and Rainier cherries coming into production, he said.

“It’s manageable growth, but it’s definitely a strong growth pattern,” Queen said. “There’s more consumer demand, not just from here but around the world.”

Early fruit should begin June 7-10, with promotable volumes by June 15, he said.

Barring changes in weather, Scott Marboe, marketing director for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee, said he anticipates harvest to start toward the end of the week of June 10.

And he viewed the midweek July Fourth holiday as an opportunity for retailers to promote cherries both on the front end and the back end.

“We could have a double-hit period,” he said.

With some of the latest-maturing orchards in the Northwest, Brad Fowler, co-owner of Hood River Cherry Co., Hood River, Ore., said in mid-April it was too early to speculate about crop size or harvest dates.

“The buds are there for a good crop. Whether they turn into cherries remains to be seen,” he said.

Fowler doesn’t even think about July Fourth promotions, since the first fruit typically doesn’t come off until about July 20. However, he said he historically has fruit into the first week of September.

“The very best cherries are the last of the market,” Fowler said. “Consumers still want cherries in August and September.”

Because his orchards are planted at high elevation, he has expanded plantings of lapins, which have fallen out of favor with some growers because of pitting problems.

“But we’ve found that’s because they were planted in lower-elevation, warmer sites,” Fowler said. “The lapins at high elevations are magnificent cherries, and our customers demand more of the lapins.”