ORONDO, Wash. — Cherry harvest is off to a decent start in Central Washington with good quality, strong early prices and apparently not too big a labor shortage.
“Fruit quality is outstanding. We really have some outstanding sugar in our fruit this year,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima, the industry’s promotional arm.
Demand was out-pacing supply with 3 million, 20-pound boxes shipped as of June 19 and South Korea as the single biggest market averaging almost 40,000 boxes per day, Thurlby said.
That same morning in Orondo, 16 miles north of Wenatchee, a small army of 105 young H-2A-visa guestworkers, just a week on the job from Mexico, picked Orondo Ruby cherries at Griggs Orchards.
“We’ve increased our H-2A by 50 percent from last year, but we’ve had a lot of domestics stopping by, which is nice, and we’ve been hiring them,” said John Griggs, co-owner.
Labor has been tight for years industry-wide, but Griggs said California’s cherry crop, always earlier than Washington’s and Oregon’s, was light this year, which freed up pickers to move north sooner this year. He said he had 87 domestic pickers and could use 30 more. He was a week into full harvest with three to four to go.
California was still shipping a few boxes on June 19 and will finish just shy of 4 million, 18-pound boxes, Thurlby said. The Pacific Northwest, with Washington the bulk of it, expects to pick 20.4 million, 20-pound boxes into August, down 22.7 percent from last year’s record 26.4-million-box crop.
Tom Riggan, general manager of Chelan Fresh Marketing, said wholesale prices started in the $80- to $90-per-box range with limited volume in the first two weeks of June. As of June 19, prices were around $55 to $70 per box, depending on fruit size. Cherries were selling at $4.99 and $7.99 per pound in Wenatchee grocery stores.
Marketers will quickly adjust prices downward to help retailers make Fourth of July sales prices as volume substantially increases, Riggan said.
“Demand is there and quality is phenomenal. Size profile is better than last year and sugars are very high, so it’s setting up so far so good. When quality is there, it flies off the shelves,” Riggan said.
Helicopters were busy in the greater Wenatchee area June 15 and 16 blowing off cherries from rain. Griggs said he had two helicopters fly once over his orchards in Orondo and three to four times over his orchards farther north near Beebe Bridge, east of Chelan.
“We’ve come through really well. I haven’t seen any splits so far. I think it’s because it stayed cool and the rain was not very long in duration,” Griggs said.
Longer rain followed by hot weather swells and splits cherries, ruining them for market.
Thurlby said he was hearing more concern about wind than rain from growers throughout Central Washington.
Norm Gutzwiler, a Malaga grower south of Wenatchee, was preparing to start picking June 21 and he was having no trouble finding pickers because of those coming up from California.
Charles Lyall, a Mattawa grower, called labor “pretty decent with a few shortages.” He said he was able to pick most of his early varieties and Bing on time, struggled to get and keep pickers and had 130 domestics at his peak. He said he paid them 23 to 28 cents per pound. Griggs said he’s paying his H-2A and domestic pickers 33 cents per pound.
Lyall said while his early Chelans and Tietons were light at just 2.75 tons per acre, size was good 9- and 8-row and sold to Malaysia and China at $85 per box.
“It was good, but not a home run. It will pay the bills. It was gorgeous fruit. I wished I’d had a bit more tonnage,” Lyall said.
He was finishing Bing harvest at a “sweet spot” of 6 tons per acre and in the $22 to $24 per box range on 11-row, a smaller size.
Lyall started harvest on June 3, just a day or two behind his neighbor, John Doebler, who was first in the Northwest.