Washington cherry growers hope for better 2023 season after bad weather and damage in 2022

YAKIMA — 2022 has been a tough year for cherry growers in the Yakima Valley, from tiny beetles spreading a small cherry disease to bad weather and a big increase in supply prices.

But many remain hopeful as the 2023 season approaches, and among the positive news to be celebrated at the Cherry Institute’s 80th annual meeting Friday at the Yakima Convention Center was that there is a popular cherry product in downtown Washington.

“Don’t give up on Rainier. The demand is there – we just need to harvest a good crop,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, during opening remarks Friday morning.

Thurlby had similar anecdotes about all the varieties grown in Central Washington, as retailers and consumers continue to prize cherries among the many fruits available in supermarkets and elsewhere.

He looked at data for the statewide cherry crop in 2022, which was down 34.5 percent from 2021, as announced in December. Snow and cold in April led to pollination and other problems, causing a later and smaller 2022 crop of 13.3 million 20-pound boxes, compared with 20.3 million the previous year.

The decline in cherries has pushed up prices and reduced sales both domestically and globally, but has not dampened demand for one of Washington’s signature fruits, Thurlby and other Northwest Cherry Growers officials said.

“It was a tough 2022 season. … The reality was we just didn’t have enough cherries for those (Asian) markets,” said Kevin Hu, director of international operations for the Cherry Growers Group.

Hu and James Michael, the organization’s vice president of North American marketing, looked at several surveys of American and Taiwanese consumers that show they prefer cherries grown in the Pacific Northwest and are aware of the fruit’s health benefits.

The trick is to grow enough of them to satisfy domestic and foreign markets and provide a competitive price compared to cherries from other countries or areas of the country, Michael and Hu said.

A little cherry disease update

In addition to bad weather, two strains of cherry disease, which causes smaller, lighter-colored fruit with damaged skin, continued to spread in 2022.

Those strains, which cause the same visual damage to cherries but are actually different diseases, are small cherry virus and phytoplasma disease X, said Scott Harper of Washington State University’s Department of Plant Pathology during a presentation at the event Friday.

“Since 2018-19, disease X has been the No. 1 pathogen in the Pacific Northwest,” Harper said.

He said the WSU research team has tested 3,000 to 4,000 samples of potentially infected fruit and trees each year for the past five years, and about 30 percent of those samples have tested positive for disease X. And the valley has the highest concentration of disease X-infected trees Yakima.

“Anything (test results) above 10 percent lowers my panic threshold,” Harper added.

Little cherry disease, in both varieties, is spread by small insects collectively described as leafhoppers. Two common species are the main vectors of the pathogen, and when trees are infected, they can spread the disease through root grafting.

So removing infected trees after the disease is detected is the single most important thing growers can do to stop the spread of cherry disease, Harper said.

Another key element is controlling chives by limiting the weeds they like to feed on, such as dandelions, mallow, goosefoot and clover, he said. This can be done with ground covers in gardens and pesticides.

“Their removal is the most effective way to slow down the epidemic,” he added. “Removing trees, removing vectors (insects), removing weeds is not easy, but it is effective and possible. It’s not hopeless.”

One positive result of the colder, snowier spring in 2022 was that it slowed the spread of ticks and disease X, WSU researchers found, especially in north-central Washington areas like Wenatchee.

“Cold weather is, in a way, a great thing to try to keep the disease under control. It doesn’t like the cold,” Harper said, noting that those conditions also reduce cherry yields.

Hoping for a rebound

Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, said early forecasts predict La Niña weather conditions for the third year in a row: a cooler spring with a hot summer.

“Temperatures will rise rapidly in late spring, leading to faster vegetation growth and the risk of flash flooding,” Turlby said, citing Browning’s World Climate Bulletin. “Hopefully that warm-up will happen near the end of April this year.”

Washington’s cherry-growing areas had the third-coldest April temperature and the wettest May and June since 1948, he noted. These conditions resulted in smaller and later harvests.

Only 2.86 million boxes of cherries were shipped in June last year, compared to 8.29 million in 2021 and the five-year average of 8.91 million boxes for the month.

While 8.16 million boxes of cherries were shipped in July 2022, compared to the five-year average of 12.22 million, Thurlby said those boxes were shipped later than the usual peak for cherry shipments and sales in early July.

This smaller crop, combined with the national inflation trend, meant higher store prices for cherries in 2022, both here and abroad. Thurlby said the average retail advertised price per pound of cherries in the U.S. from June 5 to Aug. 28 ranged from $5.81 in early June to $3.90 in late July.

He noted that on July 4, 2022, the price of Northwest cherries was 72 percent higher than the same date a year earlier. By comparison, grapes, strawberries and blueberries grew by about 16 percent over the same period.

Overseas, Northwest Cherry Growers shipped 3.05 million 20-pound boxes of cherries, just 23 percent of the total 2022 crop. In normal years, about 30 percent of the cherries grown in Washington are sold internationally, noted Hu, director of international operations.

A lack of quality cherries available for export markets has pushed prices up to $15 a pound in Asian countries, Hu said. This resulted in few showings of cherries in foreign markets early in the season, although after mid-July there were larger and more numerous shows as production increased and prices fell to the $7 to $9 per pound range.

Canada remains the largest export market for Northwest cherries, Hu said, with Taiwan and Mexico two other reliable places to sell cherries each year.

China and other Southeast Asian countries still have potential, provided additional barriers such as tariffs are removed.

And India remains an untapped market with an estimated target audience of 10 million customers, Hu said.

“If 10 million families buy 1 pound of cherries every year, that’s still half a million boxes (for export),” Hu added. “I’ll take it!”

Organizers said nearly 500 registered attendees attended Friday’s Cherry Institute, and there were 50 exhibitors at the show.

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