Warm, dry spring brings on Washington cherry crop

GRANGER. — Dennis Jones has only one complaint about the early start to this year’s cherry harvest.

His grandchildren were still in school Tuesday and couldn’t help with the usual little chores around Jones Farms.

“School went too late,” he said with a laugh as he hosed down bin after bin of freshly picked Chelan cherries arriving from his Granger orchards. “My grandkids usually do that.”

Otherwise, Jones, his workers, fellow growers, stores and pretty much the entire industry is psyched that Eastern Washington’s warm spring has kicked off cherry-picking roughly seven days earlier than the past six or seven years.

“The growing conditions have just lined up perfectly for the growers,” said Sky Johnson, a sales and marketing account representative for Borton Fruit in Yakima.

Columbia Basin regions such as Mattawa and Pasco began picking early varieties like Chelans last week. Jones and a handful of growers began picking in the Yakima Valley on Saturday. The Wenatchee Valley and Okanogan areas will follow in the coming weeks.

Growers now forecast a crop of 20.7 million boxes, up from early May’s first prediction of just under 20 million, according to the Northwest Cherry Growers of Yakima.

Perhaps most importantly, a record 7.6 million boxes of those cherries could come off the trees in June.

Timing is critical with cherries. An early start ensures plenty of Washington fruit will reach stores before Fourth of July, the nation’s biggest cherry consumption day.

“It looks like we’re going to have more cherries in June than in years, if not ever,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers. “The Fourth of July is everything to our growers.”

Credit this year’s weather; 2014 has been the warmest spring in the past 20 years in Prosser, according to AgWeatherNet, the Prosser-based Washington State University network of weather stations. Mean high temperatures for May surpassed those of 2011, a record cold year, by 8 degrees. Asparagus also started a few days earlier this spring.

Meanwhile, growers have had little, if any, rain the past few weeks. Rain causes ripe cherries to swell and split, making them difficult to market.

Last year, rain wiped out more than 20 percent of the state’s crop, Thurlby said. Growers rented helicopters, fired up wind machines and drove through their orchards with the fans from empty spray tanks trying to salvage what they could. Jones heard of growers getting their spray trailers stuck in the mud, while his crews had to till out the trailer ruts.

This year, Washington growers have California’s misery adding to their good luck.

California growers had horrible conditions, with both frost and drought, leaving store shelves, shoppers and even workers up for grabs by Washington orchardists.

“The market is going to be open for so long,” Jones said.

Migrant laborers arriving in Washington told Jones they couldn’t wait to leave California because they were picking at a rate of 12 baskets per day. Normal is between 20 and 30 baskets, while veteran pickers can top 50, Jones said.

Sometimes, harvests in California and Washington overlap, making workers hard to come by, Jones said.

Still, growers always take good news with a grain of salt. Cherries are fickle and unpredictable.

Rain can still come during harvest; Friday, Saturday and Sunday show a slight chance of showers in Yakima. Pockets of localized hail sometime cause problems through June.

And the lack of cherries up until now may backfire if consumers have grown tired of looking but not finding them. Cherry sales rely heavily on repurchases, Johnson said.

“You never really know with this deal until it’s underway,” Johnson said.

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