It should be a bountiful sweet cherry harvest this year, according to recent estimates from the U.S. National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). As cherry pickers from California make their way north into Washington territory, growers from across the state must prepare for the gamblers’ market, balancing early profits with the possibility of crop-ruining weather conditions.
When it comes to sweet cherries, Washington is king. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Washington exported $304 million in cherries in 2016, a 10.9 increase from 2015.
Last month, NASS predicted a 36 percent sweet cherry production increase nationally, with an anticipated 114,760 more tons compared to last year. Washington state is expected to yield 60,000 more tons of cherries compared to its 195,000 tons in 2016.
The increased crop projections aren’t a total anomaly, according to Jim Colbert, chair of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association (WSTFA) Board and a sweet cherry farmer growing near Chelan, Washington. Over the past six to seven years there have been more cherry trees planted and now they are ready for harvesting, he added.
However, the increased yield won’t keep up forever. In the past two or three years, the planting has subsided and many growers have shifted to planting apple trees instead, according to Colbert.
Unlike apples or pears, cherries are heavily influenced by weather patterns around bloom time which can prove problematic for growers, he added. This year, the conditions are right for a “heavy set” yield.
Even so, a sudden downpour could turn profits from sweet to sour.
“I can grow sweet cherries all year long and could wait to pick the day it rains, and it would ruin the entire crop,” said Colbert.
To explain it to non-growers, he uses the analogy of a Mylar balloon that is overfilled and put outside in a storm – it pops. The cherry trees absorb the rain but cannot release the water at the same rate. A rain in the morning could split the cherry fruit, rendering the crop uncommercial.
“The farmer is always pessimistic and waiting for the worst,” said Colbert. “It’s not a foregone conclusion. You could pick a monster crop but if there wasn’t enough rain it shortens the cherries’ shelf life and doesn’t taste quite as good.”
Farmers do not necessarily like a large harvest, Colbert added, because of the additional stresses involved with the production, working longer hours and wondering if the market will take the increased yield. In some cases, the market is set in advance and a farmer can’t ask a buyer to commit to buying 15 percent more cherries if it’s a larger harvest, he continued.
In the world of cherries, timing is everything. Colbert told Lens he typically decides to harvest in the beginning of July.
Growers in the lowest elevation regions of the state usually start picking the third week of May to the first week of June, depending how long the winter holds, he added. For higher elevations around Wenatchee and Yakima, the harvesting might continue to the first week of August.
“There’s always an eagerness but there’s no real reason to be early because California has plenty of fruit,” John Doebler told the Capital Press. He and his wife own a cherry orchard north of Mattawa. “It’s better to be patient and have better quality.”
Cherry farmers also struggle to find a skilled workforce to take on the increased harvest, according to Colbert.
“Cherry picking is not like apple or pear picking. Some people assume agricultural labor is unskilled,” he added. “Cherry picking is a highly skilled labor.”
To prepare for an increased yield, producers will try to hire 10- to 20-percent more workers to pick the fruit. That allows for more wages, Colbert added, and the pickers are spending more money locally, such as in grocery stores.
The growers typically hire men and women that follow the cherry harvest in the western U.S., he added. They tend to start in Central Valley, California in late April or early May.
“They start picking cherries and chase them to Washington when California’s crops run out,” said Colbert. “They can make a significantly higher wage picking cherries when they are paid by the piece. It’s fast and clean, and the growers are happy.”
The top cherry pickers can earn well over $375 a day picking cherries, he said.
The employment spike is also seen at the warehouse level. According to Colbert, the apple, pear and cherry packer Chelan Fruit might have 600 employees year-round. During the 10-week cherry harvest they will hire an additional 600 to 700, Colbert added.
In addition to finding employment, growers must navigate a supply-driven market which might drop suddenly as there are only so many people buying cherries, he added.
“It’s not guaranteed money every year and is far riskier than any other tree fruit,” continued Colbert. “There’s an old adage I heard when I was 20: you make money about one in every three years and that adage still holds.”
Cherry farming is more of a gamblers’ market than most other commodities, he said.
“There’s another adage: a (grower) who makes money is the first guy picking or the last guy (picking),” he added. “It’s a true story. The pricing curve is almost a smile and the guy that picks in the middle is going to get less money.”