Cherry harvest prospects looking up

For the Basin Business Journal | June 30, 2024 1:00 AM

COLUMBIA BASIN — Things are looking up this year for Washington cherry growers. 

The forecast is that the Northwest cherry crop – including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah – will come in between 17 million and 18 million boxes, according to Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Growers Association. 

Last year’s crop faced challenges with timing and weather, he said, but this year is looking more promising as spring and summer has had kinder weather for cherries. Those growing conditions will help fix timing issues and help the process move forward. 

“Everyone is figuring it couldn’t possibly be a more difficult year than last year,” DeVaney said. “We had beautiful fruit last year, but the marketing window was so narrow because of that warm spring weather that led to our compressed crop. And it overlapped with California. That created a real marketing disaster.”

Rough 2023

Fully half of Washington’s cherry crop was lost to challenging weather in 2023, according to a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in February and signed by Washington’s senators and 10 Congressional representatives. 2023 had an unusually cold spring, followed by an abrupt swing into 90-plus-degree temperatures in April.

Cherries normally mature over a 120-day period, the letter pointed out, but 70% of Washington’s crop was ready to pick in the 30 days between June 20 and July 20. 

“You plant cherries at different altitudes because cherries go directly to market as they’re harvested,” DeVaney said. “So you try to have them maturing at different times … We still had a good-sized crop, but less time in which to pick it and sell it.”

The tight time frame meant Washington growers had to leave about 35% of fruit unharvested on the tree. The USDA declared the harvest a natural disaster in March.

The market was also hit by the weather, DeVaney said.

“It created some really low prices for growers,” he said. “If you try to sell the same amount of fruit in a shorter time consumers have less opportunities to buy it and it becomes a real challenge … This year we’re hoping for more normal timing along with a crop that is expected to be slightly smaller than average.

Optimistic 2024

The industry isn’t out of the woods, so to speak, just yet. Cautious optimism is sometimes the best a cherry grower can hope for.

“All it takes is one rainstorm to cause a lot of cherries to split and what looks like a good crop can go away or be substantially reduced, so no grower likes to tempt fate,” DeVaney said. “But right now the growing conditions have been really excellent. The fruit is shaping up to be a good size. There’s consistent patterns of fruit on the tree, which means that you can get good sizing and not have the fruit rubbing up against other branches and other pieces of fruit so that it will have a chance to grow and develop, to be very attractive, get good quality for getting the best, best possible pricing.”

That’s heartening news for overseas markets. About 33% of last year’s crop was exported, according to Northwest Horticultural Council data. 

The biggest markets are Canada and East Asia, Devaney said.

“Consumers in Asia, in particular, will pay a premium for Northwest cherries, because of our quality and our sizing,” he said. “So their retailers are always excited for the start of cherry season.”

Joel Martin may be reached via email at