Aided by weakness of the U.S. dollar and an improving economy worldwide, export sales of Northwest cherries are expected to be strong this year, Northwest sources said.

For example, the U.S. dollar was 18% weaker against the South Korean currency in mid-April compared to a year ago. That makes U.S. imports — including cherries — nearly one-fifth cheaper for South Korea buyers compared with year-ago levels.

“We are looking forward to a good export year,” said Keith Horder, Union Gap, Wash.-based director of business development for L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C.

The U.S. ranks second in cherry production, according to statistics from the United Nations Foreign Agriculture Organization.

The FAO reports that Turkey’s cherry production in 2007 ranked first with 398,000 metric tons, followed by the U.S. with 282,000 metric tons and Iran with 225,000 metric tons.

Northwest cherry marketers sent 5.7 million boxes to the export market in 2009, of which Canada accounted for 2 million boxes.

In total, exports accounted for more than a quarter of last season’s record 20.4 million box crop from the Northwest, said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Wenatchee, Wash.-based Northwest Cherry Growers.

Total U.S. cherry exports in 2009, including both the Northwest and California, topped $285 million, up from $272 million in 2008 and $255 million in 2007.

Canada is the top U.S. fresh cherry export destination with about $105 million in sales in 2009, followed by Japan with $65 million and Taiwan with $25 million.

China showed the most dramatic export growth last year, rising from $1.3 million in sales in 2008 to $9.4 million in exports for 2009. Hong Kong and Australia also showed substantial growth.

“China seems to be a market that continues to grow for us,” said Mark Spears, export sales manager for Asia and the Middle East for Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan, Wash.

Spears said the Northwest cherry industry will continue to experiment with shipping fruit by ocean to export destinations.

“Everybody knows that to deliver the best quality fruit, it is usually by air, but the cost of the air freight makes it more challenging to deliver on the other end.”

Exported cherries are typically packed in 11-pound boxes and the fruit is often repacked into smaller packs upon arriving in offshore markets.

Pricing of export fruit is fairly similar with domestic sales.

Spears said the very highest quality fruit brings perhaps a $2-5 per-box premium in export sales, while the regular sized fruit of 10-row to 11-row brings similar prices.

Mexico as an export destination is growing slowly, Spears said, hindered in large part by the retaliatory tariff applied to cherries and other fruit because of the truck access dispute between the U.S. and Mexico.