YAKIMA, Wash. — The future of the Northwest cherry deal is trending higher.

The years of the 12 million carton cherry crop in the Northwest are likely gone unless a weather event derails the crop, said Howard Nager, vice president of marketing at Domex Superfresh Growers.

“The years of 20 million plus are ahead of us,” he said.

Growers and shippers will lengthen the season with later varieties, Nager said.

“The reality is on a big year we think there is probably room to see 25 million boxes,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers.

Cherries occupy about 40,000 acres in Washington. Within the past five years plantings have been heavier on later varieties.

The growth of export markets could determine if the Northwest cherry industry can profitably market 30 million cartons, said Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing for Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan.

Middle-class consumers in China and India could drive demand, he said.

“If you can duplicate the buying power of the U.S., then it just comes down to whether we can pick them and pack them,” he said.

The expansion in Northwest crops isn’t matched with an expansion in the number of days to market the fruit, he said. “If we grow from 20 million cartons to 30 million cartons, we don’t get 30% more growing and harvesting time,” he said. “We might get a week.”

The Washington cherry industry has made giant leaps in harvest efficiency, cooling and packing technology in the past 10 years.

Geared up for production

The entire tree fruit industry has made investments in packing and handling technology to handle the growing tree fruit volume, said Ed Kershaw, chief executive officer of Domex Superfresh Growers.

“From a supply side we are a higher plateau of production, but we are geared for it,” Kershaw said.

The future course of the Northwest cherry deal will include more growth, particularly late in the season, marketers said.

“The late deal will continue to grow, just by virtue of the trees that have been planted,” said Steve Clement, chief operating officer and general manager for Sage Fruit Co., Yakima.

Eventual potential volume is uncertain, he said, but it is likely that new orchards will replace older blocks of cherry orchards. Thirty million cartons is not beyond the realm of the possibility, Clement said.

“Growers need to be getting enough tons to the acre to make the returns work, and that’s getting harder and harder on the older blocks,” Clement said.

While the apple market has seen a multitude of proprietary varieties, Clement said cherries don’t share that trend.

“I do think we will see some proprietary varieties pop up, but I sure don’t know of any big push on the proprietary side on cherries,” Clement said.

The prospect of mechanical harvesting is years away, Clement said.

“For mechanical harvesting, you need to set up your orchard in a certain way to make that happen, and those orchards that were planted five years ago aren’t viable for mechanical harvesting,” he said. “I think we are going to have to come up with options that require less labor in the long term.”

Overlap with California may be a recurring issue as growers in that state are planting later varieties.

“Our early deal is pretty well set, so if they go later it increases overlap,” Clement said.

Changes coming

The late season cherry deal will see changes in the years ahead, said Chris Falk, vice president of Washington Fruit & Produce.

“It seems like there will be some acreage pulled and/or replanted in coming years as certain varieties gain or lose favor depending on harvest timing and other factors,” Falk said.

“There’s still a lot of young acreage in the ground not producing yet, especially on the late end of the crop, and the industry is still sorting out which varieties are desired by customers and/or efficient to farm.”

The future will be strong for Northwest cherries, said Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Oneonta Trading, Wenatchee. He said he believes “it is only going to grow stronger.

“The state has done an excellent job in growing the right varieties and bringing an great piece of fruit to the consumers.”