( Domex Superfresh Growers )

With fruit big, early and sweet, 2016 was a good year for Northwest cherries.

The 2016 Northwest cherry season began with a start date of May 20, the earliest start in the region’s history, according to Northwest Cherry Growers.

That start was a full 30 days ahead of the harvest starts in 2009 and 2011, according to Northwest Cherry Growers.

That early start was reflected with impressive early volume.

“When you get the perspective of consumers and retailers, everybody agrees the fruit was large, pricing was good, the cherries tasted great and sales were fantastic,” said Mike Preacher, director of marketing and customer relations for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, Wash.

What was invisible to consumers is that the state had 21 rain events during cherry harvest, but the industry’s high-tech sorters did a great job of keeping damaged fruit from reaching consumers.

Northwest cherry marketers shipped 12.3 million cartons in June, a record volume for that month.

Altogether, cherry marketers moved about 20.9 million 20-pound box equivalents in 87 days of shipping.

Dark sweet cherries accounted for 19.7 million boxes in 2016, up from 17.97 million boxes in 2015.

Rainier cherries numbered 1.79 million 15-pound boxes, up slightly from 1.78 million boxes.

The 2016 crop ranged as the third largest on record, trailing only the 2014 crop of 23.2 million boxes and the 2012 crop of 22.9 million boxes.

The row size of the fruit, according to Northwest Cherry Growers, was the largest of any season — more than 84% of the packed fruit was 10.5-row or larger, with 9-, 8- and 7-row fruit fairly common.

“Last year was a good example of introducing to consumers some of the larger row size cherries that are more of dessert eating quality,” said Randy Abhold, vice president of sales and marketing for Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash.

“The more of those they got the more they wanted, and it was repeat sales that drove the industry to very good results.”

Retail scan data from Nielsen showed that for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 27, total U.S. cherry sales reached a three-year high, passing $815 million.

According to the data, the average base price was $4.07 per pound while the average ad price was $2.79 per pound.

By region, the Southeast showed a sales increase of 32%, compared with 19% in the Northeast and 14% in the mid-South.

Industry leaders say the market has demonstrated the demand for larger, premium priced fruit.

“The days of 99 cents promotion to move anything are gone,” Preacher said. “If you have the right fruit, presentation and size, it works.”

The data showed random-weight dark sweet cherries contributed the bulk of category sales at $670 million, but fixed-weight cherries represented 26% of incremental cherry growth and 12% of cherry dollars.

According to the scan data, cherry dollars (up 10.4%) and volume (up 8.1%) saw strong growth rates.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that peak cherry promotional activity in 2016 occurred the week of July 1 last year, when more than 23,397 retail stores were promoting dark red sweet cherries.

The most aggressive ad pricing for dark red sweet cherries happened a week later, when 18,167 retailers promoted dark red sweet cherries at a price of $2.62 per pound.

The number of stores promoting red cherries dropped to just 37 stores by early August last year.

The USDA said peak promotion of Rainier cherries last year occurred the week of June 24, when 5,283 stores promoted Rainiers at an average promotion price of $4.43 per pound.