Cherries from the Pacific Northwest are one of the few agricultural commodities that remain seasonal. While other items such as apples have found ways to be available all season long, Northwest cherries are available just for a handful of months.
This year’s harvest just got underway. Yakima Valley residents have likely spotted the fruit locally at farmers markets or fruit stands. Those who live in other parts of the country will start seeing Northwest cherries at the grocery store in the coming weeks as shipments ramp up in the next few days, said James Michael, vice president of marketing for Northwest Cherry Growers, a Yakima-based organization that represents some 2,000 growers in the five-state Northwest growing region.
Here are a few initial observations about this year’s harvest:
Mother Nature cooperated
A snowy February and a cold snap in March had local growers anticipating a late start to this year’s season. Some growers estimated delays of up to two weeks.
Temperatures soared in the last part of May and early part of June, reaching the high 80s and low 90s. That helped speed up production, and many growers in the Lower Yakima Valley started to harvest in the past week rather than a few weeks later.
This development was crucial as the industry tries to ensure that there are enough cherries shipped nationwide for the Fourth of July, a significant promotion period for summer produce, including cherries. Given that it can take upwards of a week for cherries to get from the Northwest to retailers on the other side of the country if the harvest started a few weeks later, there could have been a risk of much fewer cherries when demand is at its peak.
In the past years, warm weather has caused the harvest to start several weeks early, into May. If that had happened this year, it would had collided with what was looking to be a record crop of California cherries. That overlap would have resulted in lower prices for growers.
Mother Nature, however, wasn’t kind to California; rain substantially reduced the crop. Still, there were cherries available at retailers, and the timing worked out where it managed to avoid any overlap.
“Everything kind of worked out,” Michael said.
Asia still has markets despite tariffs
A 40 percent retaliatory tariff — bringing the total duty to 50 percent — on U.S. cherries to China certainly damped what was a fast-growing export market in recent years. China was the top export market, importing some 3 million boxes. That dropped considerably, to 1.9 million boxes last season.
Despite the tariffs — a product of an ongoing trade war with the U.S. — still being in place, shipments shouldn’t drop further, said Keith Hu, international program manager for Northwest Cherry Growers.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” he said.
What’s keeping the China market going is increased volume to second- and third-tier cities in the Asian country. Increased presence in those cities will be crucial for long-term success in the country, Hu said.
Even though China won’t be at 2017 numbers, it remains likely to remain in the No. 2 spot for exports, behind Canada. Other top markets include Korea and Taiwan.
Northwest Cherry Growers will also continue promotions in southeast Asia, which has emerging markets in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
Speaking of promotions, Hu is working with a cruise company, Dream Cruises, a large Asia cruise company. Northwest Cherry Growers is working on several cherry-themed cruises, where passengers will be able to sample cherries and partake in cherry-infused dishes and drinks.
Food influencers key in promotion
Northwest Cherry Growers is continuing to find ways to emphasize the health benefits of cherries in both domestic and international promotions, Michael said.
During the winter months, promotions have centered on people eating frozen cherries that provide a boost with the shorter days and longer nights. In the summer months, there will be more emphasis on eating fresh cherries for their anti-inflammatory benefits.
“We really dialed in on developing the health side,” he said.
However, Michael said a vital tool for Northwest Cherry Growers’ domestic promotion had been food influencers, be it food writers from magazines such as Rachael Ray or Better Homes and Gardens or those who post about food on Instagram and other social media channels.
Last year, Michael sent thousands of pounds of cherries to food influencers and writers across the country. The hope is that influencers would take the box of cherries, try new ways to use them, and share their experiments with their audience, thus enticing readers to buy a bag of cherries.
Influencers are “far more effective in creating a presence for cherries than us designing (a promotion),” Michael said.
How big will the crop be?
The harvest is expected to continue through August, so there will be several crop estimates over that period.
Last month, Northwest Cherry Growers predicted a crop of 24.9 million 20-pound boxes. The latest estimate, which was released early this month, was slightly lower at 24.3 million boxes.
That figure, however, would still make this year’s crop the third largest ever, behind the 2018 crop of 25.4 million and the current record crop of 26.4 million in 2017.