Growers in the five northwest cherry-growing states are anticipating a later harvest and lower yields, but are hoping for high-quality fruit as the summer months approach.
The Northwest Cherry Growers held a five-state meeting on WednesdayMay 18, in Richland, with producers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
BJ Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, said the annual meeting provides a valuable “check” on how the cherry crop is developing.
“It’s clear that the mid-season orchards across Washington state haven’t produced a big harvest. … In fact, there are too many orchards that don’t have a harvestable crop this year,” Thurlby reported.
Earlier in May, Thurlby predicted that weather-related issues, such as cold-damaged flowers and lack of pollination, would reduce this year’s cherry harvest by 35% compared to the average volumes of the past five seasons. .
The April snowfall on the cherry blossoms was amazing to see, but Thurlby said prolonged low temperatures in the 30s caused more crop losses.
“Growers are now seeing the results of generally poor pollination that they have seen in their orchards and across the Northwest,” he added.
As researchers and professors from Washington State University’s horticulture program have noted, temperatures below 55 degrees tend to keep bees in their hives instead of pollinating flowers. And when a bee visits a cherry blossom, a figurative timer is started and the hours-long pollination process must be completed before that time runs out. The air temperature must remain relatively ideal for the process to complete.
“If this period is interrupted or prohibited, by low temperatures or extreme winds for example, it will probably prevent the fruit from developing,” Thurlby said. “This unrealized fruit is much of the ‘first drop’ that growers have seen over the past few days and discussed at the meeting.”
He and growers in the five states are hoping a smaller crop will mean higher leaf-to-fruit ratios, which in the past has produced high-quality cherries.
April’s extreme cold and continued cooler-than-average temperatures through much of May mean the Washington cherry harvest will start later than usual, likely around June 9-10, said Thurlby. The harvest should extend until July and perhaps even the beginning of August.
“Before the cold weather set in, the Northwest had started one of the earliest blooms on record recently,” he added. “The snow and sub-40 degree weather that followed turned the bloom into one of our earlier starting, later ending blooms.
“This bodes well for early and late season cherry supplies for (grocery store) shelves,” Thurlby said. “However, variations in pollination and remaining crop load will make individual peaks difficult to predict.”
Growers in the five states predicted a region-wide cherry harvest of 136,000 tons, or 13.6 million 20-pound boxes of sweet black and yellow/Rainier cherries. There were 203,000 tonnes shipped in 2021, a year that saw record warmth in the Northwest towards the end of the cherry harvest.
“Mother Nature is still the biggest shareholder in our harvest, and we’ll have to see how the rest of the growing season progresses,” Thurlby said. “As of today, it looks like there are still opportunities for what should be a dessert-grade fruit crop.”