WENATCHEE, Wash. — As cherry picking begins high atop central Washington’s Stemilt Hill, one can look down and see Wenatchee Valley cherry orchards that were harvested three weeks earlier.

The larger cherries that grow on the slopes of the 3,000-foot hill are helping extend Washington’s cherry season into mid-August.

“You just can’t touch this stuff. This area is so beautiful and breathtaking,” said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee.

This season’s Washington cherry harvest, which began eight days behind normal, should be 30% smaller in volume. February and April frosts and high winds before the season prevented pollination, grower-shippers say.

Prices are higher amid tight dark cherry supplies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in mid-July reported the following f.o.b.s for 20-pound cartons of cherries: 10-row size and larger $34-36, 11-row size and larger $26-28 and 12-row size and larger $24.

Last year, 10-row size and larger went for $24, 11-row size and larger, $22 and 12-row size and larger fetched $16-18.

EXTENDING THE SEASON

This year, Stemilt Growers, named after the hill, plans to pick cherries at 2,200- to 2,300-foot elevations through Aug. 15. Most of Washington’s cherry picking ends by July 31.

“This higher elevation crop, because we have more moderate temperatures, allows the cherries to get larger sizes and mature evenly, producing a higher quality cherry,” Pepperl said.

Another firm, Dovex Fruit Co., Wenatchee, will pick through Aug. 12.

“As we climb up the hill, the cherries get better and better, qualitywise,” said John Botts, Dovex Fruit’s cherry marketing specialist. “There’s a marked difference in these cherries.”

The upper districts will have only 50% to 60% of a normal crop, said Botts.

Eric Patrick, promotions director for the Washington State Fruit Commission, Yakima, said the late season cherries are important in the state’s cherry marketing.

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “And it keeps getting bigger, not only for the growers but for the retailers and consumers as well.”

PUSHING TOWARD LABOR DAY

Traditionally, most cherry ads run over the July Fourth weekend.

“But now we’re seeing more promotions into the first week of August,” Patrick said. “We keep hoping that one day we will have a big Labor Day promotion.”

New British Columbia varieties are helping Stemilt Growers extend harvest toward Sept. 1, Stemilt’s Pepperl said.

“Our 10- to 12-week season is quickly heading to 12-13 weeks in the future,” Pepperl said.

The big push in the Washington fresh cherry industry has been to plant varieties that produce in early August, Patrick said.

RETAIL FAVORITES

Retailers also are high on the higher elevation and late season cherries.

“We have a lot of retailers that have caught on and are devoted customers to this hill product,” Pepperl said.

“We’re finding that these cherries are becoming a signature item for most of the chains we supply. The ability to go two to three weeks later with these late cherries is worth a ton of money to produce directors trying to push sales,” he said.

That push has helped cherries become the eighth biggest contributor to the produce department’s fruit category, accounting for 1.1% in annual category sales, according to the Perishables Group Inc., Carpentersville, Ill.

Cherries represent at least 3.2% of a produce department weekly June through August sales.

“That’s not too bad for being available only half of the year,” Pepperl said.

“For most chains that are really on it, cherries are either in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot in terms of dollar value, according to our customer base.”

QUALITY HIGH

Despite the smaller crop, grower-shippers report quality will be high since the lighter loads on the trees are producing large and plump cherries.

“We will see 10.5-row size and larger cherries,” Botts said.

“This will be a very nice crop,” he said.

Dovex Fruit expects to pack 280,000 cartons, down from its normal half million.

Stemilt Growers, which supplies a quarter of the Northwest cherry deal, expects to supply 1.4 million boxes of consumer packs and clamshells, Pepperl said.