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Weather takes toll on Northwest cherry crop

James Michael, vice president of marketing-North America for Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission, said the 2013 cherry season was a challenge in every sense of the word. Regional production, originally set in the 16 million to 18 million box range earlier in the season, was recently downgraded to 14.2 million boxes. And weather is the culprit.

"The weather this year is exactly what a cherry grower doesn't want to see," Michael told The Produce News Sept. 25. "This is the biggest variation from normal in the past decade."

Most of the reported damage occurred with the industry's early crop, which growers began to harvest later than is typical.

The Pacific Northwest experienced significant rainfall at the end of May and beginning of June. Rain was then followed by extreme heat in early August. "The summer rains and heat make cherries more susceptible to damage," Michael said.

Cherries are neat and tidy packages from a physiological standpoint. But Michael said water can collect at the stem end, and the cherries begin to absorb the excess water. With their skins already stretched tight over the fruit, higher temperatures can increase absorption, and the skins can eventually split.

Michael said there was no discernible pattern to the damage. "Damage was extremely localized in orchards," he said.

To illustrate, he said, in one case, a gravel road divided orchard locations. On one side of the road, extreme damage was reported. On the other, damage was minimal.

In terms of production and marketing, Michael said the season "was a challenge in both ways. Cherries are an iconic seasonal fruit. Spring came early, and consumers were excited."

Cherry crops in the Pacific Northwest have steadily grown in volume. Last year's crop was a record-setter for the industry. Despite the downgrade in 2013 cherry volume, Michael said this season's crop is still classed as one of the top 10 largest crops.

The region's cherry growers have increased plantings of both early- and late-season varieties, which has resulted in the extension of the overall cherry season from traditional timeframes. Michael said this new-normal has also pushed out peak volume dates, which are coming later in July.

"It is difficult for the industry and retailers to get a handle on volume during the early season," he said. "It created an interesting dynamic."