Cherry growers having good season in 2019

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald Rainier cherries fill a container at the Tonnemaker Farms fruit stand near Royal City.

QUINCY — Farming bears a resemblance to playing the slot machines – past a certain point, the farmer just has to trust fortune. Sometimes fortune smiles, and sometimes fortune frowns. In 2019, fortune seems to be smiling on cherry growers.

As of Tuesday, the average price for red cherries was ranging between $1.80 to $2 per pound in the domestic market, and between $2 to $2.30 per pound in the export market, according to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state's 2019 cherry crop is estimated at about 20 million 20-pound boxes, said Steve Castleman of CMI Orchards in Wenatchee. The pre-harvest estimate was about 23 million boxes.

The crop is expected to be smaller than the last couple years, but bigger than the three-year average, said Tim Kovis, communications manager for the Washington Tree Fruit Association. “That is not a bad place to be.”

Kovis has been talking to Washington growers throughout the season. The state's harvest still has about a month to go – depending on the variety and location, harvest will continue through mid-August – but “everybody seems to be optimistic trends will hold.”

Sometimes Mother Nature doesn't cooperate during cherry season, but she has in Washington in 2019. “We've had a really good growing season,” said Bob Grandy, risk manager for Gebbers Farms in Brewster.

It didn't necessarily start out that way. “It's been a strange season,” Castleman said, starting with a late winter. That delayed the bloom in some places. “The early districts blossomed late. The middle and late districts blossomed on schedule,” he said. That could've meant a lot of cherries ripening at the same time, “that big squeeze in late June-early July,” Castleman said. That would've been bad for growers, but it didn't happen. The districts where bloom was late seemed to mature early, he said.

Rain can be very bad for cherries if it falls at the wrong time – say, when the fruit is close to harvest. (Water pools in the hollow of the cherry stem, and in certain circumstances the cherry will absorb the water and split open.) It did rain at inconvenient times in some cherry growing districts, but “we seemed to get out of those events unscathed,” Kovis said. “The wind has been more problematic than the rain,” damaging cherries but also blowing them dry before they could absorb water. “It (wind) has been a curse and a blessing.”

“The fruit has been through quite a bit,” Castleman said.

Nevertheless producers and packers have been pleased with cherry quality. “We're having tremendous packouts,” Grandy said. “The fruit quality has been excellent,” Castleman said.

The market has been “pretty steady,” he said. California's growers had the bad luck in 2019, with rain at the wrong time, and the California crop was smaller than forecast as a result. “There was pent-up demand for Washington cherries,” when they came on the market, Castleman said.

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at education@columbiabasinherald.com.

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