Domex Superfresh Growers expects its 2018 cherry crop to be as high quality as last year's cherries, pictured here. ( Courtesy Domex Superfresh Growers )

Rain and low temperatures lingered longer than usual in the Pacific Northwest this spring, but cherry growers had their fingers crossed in the hope that temperatures would rise and skies would clear in time to deliver a productive and profitable season.

The first industry estimate of Northwest cherries — released in early May — puts the crop at 22.6 million 20-pound cartons, down double digits from a year ago.

The 2018 estimate is off 15% from the 2017 fresh packout of 26.5 million cartons, according to the Yakima-based Northwest Cherry Growers.

B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, said there’s no reason to believe that volume will be less than 20 million cartons this season.

Average crop size is 22 million boxes.

On a drive from Yakima to the Tri-Cities — Pasco, Kennewick and Richland — on April 13, he said he saw bing and rainier cherries in “100% full bloom,” but with fewer cherries per bud than usual.

“This year, trees will come back with a little bit less fruit, but that doesn’t mean we still won’t have a great crop on our hands,” he said.

Fewer cherries per bud actually can mean improved quality and size.

“You’d be surprised how much tonnage you make up when your cherries are bigger,” Thurlby said.

Dreary weather seemed to be giving way to sunny conditions by late April, when temperatures moved into the upper 60s and low 70s around Chelan, Wash.

“It’s fantastic for the next 10 days,” Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan Fresh Marketing in Chelan, said April 19.

No rain was forecast.

“It’s perfect,” he said. “We’ll set this crop in the next couple weeks.”

Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee, Wash., also was optimistic.

“Barring any rain or super-hot weather, it’s shaping up to be great,” he said during the third week of April.

Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers Inc. expects to start its cherry harvest on June 5 or shortly thereafter, said marketing director Roger Pepperl.

“The chance of a smaller crop of larger cherries is probably out there,” he said.

If that happens and cherries are nice-looking, f.o.b. prices could rise, and growers and retailers may be able to garner more money for their product, he said, “which is something that’s desperately needed out there.”

Growers weren’t sure what to make of the shortfall out of California this season.

The California Cherry Commission estimated that the state’s cherry crop will be down significantly from last year — about 3 million boxes compared to a record 9.6 million boxes last year. Normal is about 6 million boxes.

Tight supplies from California could make consumers hungrier for cherries when the Northwest crops comes on, Thurlby said.

But good supplies from California prompt retailers to carve out shelf space for cherries.

“Having the distribution up front is helpful to us,” he said.

Timing of the California crop is key, Riggan said.

“Most of their crop might come off the back end, which could definitely affect us,” he said, since California fruit would be hitting the market at the same time as Northwest fruit.

“How that’s going to affect us, I don’t know yet,” he said.

Even with a small crop, if California growers ship good-quality fruit, it could help set up the Northwest for a good season, said Bill Knight, domestic sales manager for Northern Fruit Co. Inc., Wenatchee.

“We’re looking forward to the season,” he said, “but we’re not that bullish until we see what’s actually hanging on the trees.”

Consumers also can expect good-quality cherries from Idaho starting around June 20, said Sally Symms, chairman of the Idaho Cherry Commission and salesman for Symms Fruit Ranch Inc., Caldwell, Idaho.

— Tom Karst contributed to this article