The past week of summerlike weather has Yakima Valley agriculture leaders, particularly those growing cherries, optimistic that 2023 will see a return to normal conditions, high-quality fruit and solid yields in area orchards.
A recent meeting of the Washington State Fruit Commission’s board of directors, along with an early-season crop prediction from the Northwest Cherry Growers, featured an optimistic outlook after last year’s cold temperatures and April snowfall produced a lower-than-usual cherry crop.
“Obviously last year we were down about one-third (from normal harvests) because of the cold spring weather during bloom,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. “If you remember, we had snow on the trees in April of last year and that caused a lot of pollination problems and fewer cherries overall.
“But this crop is looking like a number much closer to what has been the average for the years before that,” he added. “A much more normal-size crop where we have a good supply as well as indications of good quality so far.”
B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, reported earlier this month that an April warmup was better late than never for area cherry trees, and the early May blooms “look outstanding, giving us hope we have a crop to bring to market this year.”
Predictions backed up Thurlby’s optimism, with a 2023 crop of 19.9 million 20-pound boxes estimated. That would be a rebound from the 13.3 million boxes harvested in 2022, a 34.5% decline from the previous year.
Several Yakima Valley growers believe the spring weather has been just right thus far, and hope for good conditions through the harvest season in late June and July.
DeVaney discussed the cherry harvest outlook, labor issues and other topics in a brief Thursday interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Can you summarize the report at the Northwest Cherry Growers board meeting?
The number they came up with was 19.9 million boxes, which would be quite a bit more than the about 13.3 million that we had last year.
We really are having good growing conditions now — the early part of spring here was pretty cool and that delayed things for a little bit, but as everyone’s noticed, it got quite a bit warmer. That’s really ideal weather for development of the cherries as they move toward adding size before starting to ripen in June.
We’re looking at having really good, abundant cherries starting to be harvested in mid- to late June, to have a good supply for the Fourth of July.
We had a later start (this year) but because it has warmed up so much, it seems like we’re going to catch up. The growers look at degree-day counts — what’s the average temperature each day, how much warmth are we getting — that will affect how fast the crop develops. That gives you a projected curve of when the fruit will reach maturity.
Although we started behind, now we’re ahead of where we were in some previous years because it’s been so much warmer over the last week.
What’s the labor outlook, as far as having enough workers?
It is always a concern. Labor supply has been a problem for agriculture for many years, and of course the broader economy is challenged, too — you still see a lot of Help Wanted signs around town.
Overall, the unemployment rate is remaining pretty low. That means growers are going to be challenged to find enough workers, in addition to working around some new regulatory requirements.
The ongoing phase-in of overtime pay requirements can be cost-prohibitive for some activities. The new heat exposure rules that will be finalized in the next two weeks will limit activities that you can do in certain higher temperatures.
That’s less of a problem for cherry harvest. Generally, you don’t want to pick the cherries above 90 degrees anyway, because the fruit is too soft and you could damage it. But it does constrain other activities, and that is why you’re seeing more usage of that H-2A temporary guest worker program in the state, as growers prepare to have a few more workers brought in under those visas to make sure they can get done what they need to.
It’s been, between COVID and the weather, a rough few years for the fruit and the ag industry. Knocking on wood, is this looking to be a more normal season?
Well, growers certainly hope so. We always want to knock on wood, because there’s a lot that nature can still throw at you before you get the fruit picked and shipped.
But right now, it’s shaping up to be much more favorable growing conditions. We’re not having a very cold, wet spring like we had last year, or the excessive heat we had in 2021, if you remember the heat dome.
Right now we’re shaping up with good growing conditions. We know that there’s an overall labor shortage, but that’s something that growers are preparing for using the tools available to them.
A lot of the supply chain problems are being addressed, so there’s a little bit more reasonable pricing on truck capacity. We’re not seeing massive backlogs in our ports. There’s a still a strain on the supply chain, but it’s not at crisis point the way it felt last year.
We’re in a good position to have a great quality cherry crop and hope to get it around the country and around the world to those who love Northwest cherries.
Contact Joel Donofrio at email@example.com.