YAKIMA, Wash. — It’s been a stellar Northwest cherry season in terms of weather, fruit quality and sale prices for consumers.
But it’s likely to be the largest crop on record at more than 25 million, 20-pound boxes, making it less than stellar for grower returns.
“It’s been the best cherry weather ever. No rain. It hasn’t been 100 degrees every day and it’s been cool at night. But pricing has not improved,” says Brenda Thomas, president of Orchard View Farms in The Dalles, the largest cherry grower in Oregon.
Wholesale prices averaged $25 to $27 per 18-pound box two weeks ago and have not gotten better, Thomas said. The wholesale average over the past three years was $35 per box, she said.
Early cherries were small, later ones are larger but more volume has not increased profits, she said.
“This year it’s a lot of work for little pay. It’s really at the orchard level. Orchards won’t get the returns they received last year,” she said.
It will be one of the lower-return years for Orchard View Farms growers and most likely throughout the industry, she said.
Retail advertising sales prices typically run $1.99 to $2.99 per pound. Prices this year have been $1.88 per pound and lower.
“It’s been tough the last two to three weeks. Prices are not where we like them to be but where they had to be to move the volume. Retailers for the most part reciprocated to move the crop. Movement has been good,” said Tom Riggan, general manager of Chelan Fresh Marketing.
Fruit has been smaller throughout the season and small fruit doesn’t sell as well as larger, he said.
“Quite a few packers including ourselves are not packing 11.5-row cherries and smaller. They go to the briner,” Riggan said.
As of July 20, 18.5 million, 20-pound boxes of cherries had shipped from Northwest packers. Of that, 10.6 million boxes were shipped in July, according to B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima, Wash.
Shipments averaged 536,392 per day for the first 20 days of July, a record for that period, Thurlby wrote in a July 21 industry memo.
There’s a chance the season will exceed 25 million boxes, he wrote. The record is 23.4 million in 2014. Northwest cherries have been the No. 1 advertised item in produce, slightly ahead of table grapes, he wrote. Harvest has also begun in Montana.
Riggan said Northwest Cherry Growers, the industry promotional arm, promoted heavily in July.
“They’ve done a good job communicating well with retailers to be very aggressive in July because there’s a lot of opportunity for increased sales,” Riggan said.
Sales will be heaviest in July and may set a record in August and run into September, he said.
There are 6 million to 7 million boxes left to go and prices may increase at the end, he said. That likely will be too late for Orchard View, which will finish its season Aug. 5, Thomas said.
Roger Pepperl, marketing director at Stemilt Growers LLC in Wenatchee, a large cherry shipper, said the company has stayed caught up on shipments, which helps with returns. There have been challenges and benefits with larger fruit getting good prices and smaller fruit selling for less, he said.
“It was a good Rainier season and we’re starting up the hill now (Stemilt Hill south of Wenatchee). We’re optimistic about the last five weeks,” he said.
Higher elevation, later fruit usually sells for higher prices.