YAKIMA, Wash. — Early estimates for the 2011 crop range from 12 million to 19 million 20-pound boxes, with most marketers predicting between 14 million and 16 million 20-pound boxes.

The crop could be slightly larger than the 14 million boxes of 2010 but smaller than the 20 million-plus carton crop of 2009. Severe cold weather in November — temperatures sank from 60 degrees to minus zero in 10 days — damaged some orchards.

The cherry crop seemed to be about a week behind last year, said Spencer Strong, director of sales for Yakima-based Sage Fruit Co. LLC. In earlier districts, there was a large spread in the maturity of the bloom within the same orchard, he said. That could create headaches for growers at harvest time, if fruit on the tree is at different stages of maturity.

Shipments of Northwest cherries will be active from mid-June through most of August, shippers said.

The Northwest crop could fall below16 million boxes, said Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee. “There was a lot of damage done in the middle of November when we had up to five days of below-zero temperatures.”

“It is more likely this could be a smaller crop and smaller sizes,” said Michael Nickoloff, salesman for Borton & Sons, Inc., Yakima.

Given the winter damage, the Northwest cherry crop could struggle to exceed 16 million boxes, said Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing for Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan.

Chris Falk, vice president of Washington Fruit & Produce, Yakima, agreed the freeze in November hurt the crop potential significantly. In late April, Falk said he would estimate the crop between 14 million to 16 million boxes.

Retailers seem to sense the uncertainty about the Northwest crop, said Spencer Strong, director of sales, for Yakima-based Sage Fruit Co. LLC.

“The pressure to get them pricing has not been what it has been in previous years at this point,” he said in mid-April.

Keith Mathews, chief executive officer of FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, Yakima, said he has heard estimates mostly from 16 million to 17 million boxes, with less damage in northern growing districts.

Mathews noted some concern about the possibility of heavier-than-normal fruit drop. In addition, there is uncertainty about cherry size this season, as the winter damage to branches could inhibit the growth of the fruit.

Pepperl was more optimistic than most marketers about the Northwest cherry crop size.

“We think it will be around 19 million cartons,” he said.

Without damage from cold or other factors, Pepperl said the potential for the Northwest crop in 2011 may have been close to 25 million or 26 million boxes, considering cherry acreage coming into the production in the state.

Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager for Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers, said most industry estimates put the crop between 14 million and 16 million boxes.

The mathematical average for the crop is somewhere between 16 million and 18 million boxes, said James Michael, promotions director for the Yakima, Wash.-based Northwest Cherry Growers.

Falk said retailers are “feeling kind of beat up” for a variety of weather markets for various commodities over the winter.

“They would like to see an even, steady deal,” he said. However, asking for that kind of smooth and predictable season for cherries may be a tall order, he said.

Marketers in late April were generally pleased with both California and Northwest growing regions running somewhat late. While there will be overlap between districts, the later start in the Northwest will reduce that effect.

Harvest start dates for Northwest cherries could fall from June 7 to June 10, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers. Last year’s start date was June 6.

Bob Mast, vice president of marketing for Wenatchee-based Columbia Marketing International Inc., said the start of red cherry harvest will be about June 12, while rainiers may start June 17-19 out of the southern districts. Rainier volume was about1.5 million boxes last year, but shippers said the variety’s popularity is growing.

Peak volume of cherries could arrive by about July 1, and marketers said there will be significant volumes of Northwest cherries available from mid-June through mid-August.

“From July to Aug. 15, you will have a lot of cherries,” Pepperl said.

The 2011 start date for Northwest cherries may be a bit behind the 10-year rolling average of June 2, Michael said.

Michael said promotable volume is expected by mid- to late June, with strong supply through July and into the first couple weeks of August.

Despite escalating fuels costs — diesel costs of more than $4 per gallon in late April were up $1 compared with a year ago — Falk said rail will not be used to any degree this year for Northwest cherries. Shippers don’t trust rail to deliver cherries, he said.

“For apples and pears, Railex has been a very successful deal,” he said. “For Joe Retailer back East, your choice is truck or truck.”