Cherry market is the pits

Cherries too small for the current market are collected at the end of the sorting line in large wooden bins at The Dalles Fruit Company in the Dallesport Industrial Park. The fruit cannot be sold due to its size and will be given away or disposed of.

The bottom of the cherry market has fallen out with a bountiful harvest across the Northwest, which means that smaller fruit cannot be sold.

That bad news has been delivered by Jeff Heater, field man for The Dalles Fruit Company, to about 25 cherry growers in Wasco and Hood River counties who process crops at the packing plant, located in Dallesport.

“We have more labor than we know what to do with, when there were predictions of a shortage, and trees survived a record cold spell last winter —now we can’t move fruit because there is a glut on the market,” he said. “Anything smaller than a 1-inch cherry, we can’t give away.”

Just a few weeks ago, Heater said everything was looking good in the marketplace. California had finished its harvest about a week before picking started in the Gorge, which brought more foreign nationals to the area to work.

At that time, it looked like the timing of California’s harvest would also work well on the marketing front. Instead of having a glut of fresh cherries available to stores all at the same time, Oregon and Washington’s crop would come in about the time that California’s fruit was off the shelves.

Rain at the start of harvest only damaged about 10 percent of the area’s cherry crop by causing the fruit to absorb moisture that cracked its skin. The Gorge was not going to join other areas in a bumper crop, but tonnage was still expected to be at a decent level, said Heater.

While the weather has remained good, he said the market has not.

“If we don’t think we can sell it, we aren’t putting it in a box,” he said of the packing operation.

About 20,000 tons of cherries go through the Fruit Company’s processing plant each year.

As it stands, only larger cherries will make money for orchardists because they can be exported at a good price to South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries.

Cherries are popular in those locations because they contain high levels of antioxidants that reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. They are rich in Vitamin C, magnesium, iron, potassium, folate and fiber and very low in fat and sodium.

Cherry varieties commonly grown in and around the Gorge are: Bing (most popular), Sweetheart, Regina, Sheena, Rainer, Early Robin, Lapin, Kordia, Sams, Sandra Rose, Black Republican, Santina, Selah, Tieton, Benton, Schneider, Lambert, Suite Note, Christalina, and Staccato. Royal Anne cherries are primarily brined and made into maraschinos and other value-added products.

“The market changes fast in cherries because the season is so short,” said Heater of the typical 65-day period between bloom and harvest.

“This is a difficult season, it’s not going as expected although the quality is high,” said Ed Ing, assistant manager of the fruit company. “The crops are small and there is not the volume here that we expected.”

He said most cherry growers in Wasco County don’t have a secondary crop so the market situation is extremely hard on their bottom line.

“Guys are not thinking of the new trucks they want to buy right now; the effects of a year like this will trickle down,” said Ing.

Heater said when some areas are having a bad year, due to weather or drought problems, growers in other locations flourish because demand exceeds supply. When everyone is growing good fruit, then supply can exceed demand, which drops the prices retailers will pay for shipments.

The usual markets on the domestic front for smaller cherries, such as juice companies, are also currently overloaded, which means there is no movement for the fruit, so a farmer has to decide if it is worth the labor costs to take it off the tree, said Heater.

“We are giving cherries to Dirt Huggers to make compost with, and trying to find other places to give them away, but some of them might end up in the landfill,” he said.

The sales team for the fruit company is located in Yakima, Wash., and spending long hours searching for any available market.

“They are working hard to find a home for smaller fruit, but they aren’t having much luck,” said Heater. He has a small cherry operation on Three Mile Road and is in the same boat as other growers. “We’re all getting grumpy but I’m sticking with the attitude that I’m not going to let this season bring my mood down,” he said.

Heater still predicts that harvest in Wasco County will wind up by Aug. 6, but the returns on the 65-day growing period might be slim to none by the time operating costs are deducted.

Ing said the demand for cherries has risen globally in recent year, which is beneficial to growers.

“We want people to get out there and buy cherries so retailers will buy more,” he said.

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