NW Cherry Growers Offer Round 3 Crop Estimate

First and foremost, we’re pleased to announce that the Northwest cherry harvest is officially under way.  Next week we will begin our regular crop updates which track our season’s progression along with important news and insights.  In the meantime though…while it means a lot of hard work on the horizon, we’re very excited to be able to celebrate the first fruits of the season are on their way to market!

Crop Size: The Northwest Cherry Growers’ Field Estimate team has compiled a third (“Round 3”) projection for the 2021 Northwest crop.  Following up on our first two rounds of estimation, this 22-person field team looked at changes to fruit set and development across their orchards as well as the surrounding area.  Within this window, cherries proceed through several more periods of fruit development or drop which influences the overall volume dynamics and estimated harvest timing.

Each member submits the data specific to their active growing districts, and then that data is built into an estimation model which represents each of the Northwest’s cherry growing regions.  This third round estimate for the total Northwest fresh crop remains effectively unchanged from Round 2 and still stands at 223,700 tons.  If accurate, this would be about a 17.7% increase over last year’s 19.8M‐box crop, and a 5.7% decrease from the 2019 23.3M‐box crop. Even though the net result was a negligible change to the fresh market estimate, there were significant changes within different districts and growers.

2021 NW Round 2 Crop Estimate: 22,370,000 boxes

Yellow Cherries: Reports from our Rainier/yellow cherry growers have been very promising.  The cherry’s yellow skin is the most susceptible of all varieties to late spring weather, but the set on the trees so far appears to be the making of a phenomenal crop.  In response to surges in demand from largely younger consumers, our Rainier growers have been committing a tremendous amount of effort to gently increase the Northwest’s overall yellow cherry yield.  The Round 3 estimate for 2021 actually increased a bit from the Round 2 number, and either way is on course to produce more promotable volume than last season.

Crop Timing: In our previous updates, we called attention to the fact that within several of our earliest regions the degree day build up was identical to last year, which saw harvest start on the 28th of May.  The initial reports for the 2021 harvest show the same date, with the first day of reported shipments coming on the first.  This year was always expected to see a slightly slower start, which was furthered by a recent several-day heat wave across many parts of the Northwest.  While the forecast did push harvest ahead in a handful of orchards, it required most others to pause.  However, cooler weather has largely returned, and with it an increase in harvest momentum.

The expected June volume remained essentially unchanged between our second and third rounds of estimates.  We expect to see a strong uptick in volume in the second week of June, leading to a traditional peak around the 24th of month.  Daily volumes should remain steady, albeit smaller, through a second peak around the 9th of July and will maintain promotable volume into August.  In fact, rough modeling shows the Round 3 crop projection with daily volumes in mid-June just over the 5 year-average…however, following the first peak the estimate is typically under that same average curve for the rest of the season. 

Crop Points to Remember – 2021

Based on the best information available at this time:

  1. While volume may accumulate more slowly, as the end of June approaches we expect shipping volumes to exceed last year.
  2. Supplies for late June and the 4th of July promotions look very promising.
  3. July will be a strong month all the way through.
  4. August will have opportunity for at least one ad this season with projected volume trickling out through the end of the month.
The frosts of April have thinned our crops to some degree in lots of pockets around the Northwest.  For some growers, that has resulted in a No Pick situation.  Fortunately, for most growers it has simply reduced the crop.  Often, that’s resulted in fewer clusters and more spread out cherries…which results in larger, higher quality fruit at harvest.

The accumulation of heat units so far this year suggest a longer crop, with more typical distribution between the districts than we’ve seen in some recent seasons.  That bodes well for a steady crop volume once momentum is achieved.  However, the generally optimal weather that drove the late May start to our crop did put a number of growing regions in danger of late frosts and wind storms.  The combination of those factors has tempered overall crop size expectations, but unfortunately that’s not the only factor that’s taken a bite out of the Northwest’s production.

For several years growers across the Northwest have been feeling the effects of a group of pathogens collectively called Little Cherry Disease (LCD).  Though different in nature, this group of viruses and bacteria cause the same results: small, under-developed and bitter fruit.  Researchers have narrowed down their spread between orchards to several insects who carry LCD on their bodies, though the exact method of insect relocation between orchards or spots within an orchard is still yet to be confirmed.

What we do know is that our industry’s orchard practices and packing technology ensure none of the small & bitter fruit is shipped for consumers.  The high quality of Northwest cherries is a standard throughout the world, and we are committed to maintaining that bar.  Even though it’s been an orchard issue for several years, our shipped crop 5-year average is 80 percent 10.5 row and larger, which is an increase over the 10-year and 15-year averages. 

But behind the scenes it’s required some aggressive intervention by our growers.  There is no cure yet, so the only procedure to stop the spread is tree or orchard removal.  Even after removal, the ground must be attended to and the local source of infection must be addressed, otherwise growers risk re-infecting their replanted orchard.  Aside from heavy financial costs, this orchard and tree removal has hit our industry production capability as well.

Collectively, our industry estimates that intervention measures have reduced our potential volume by 2.5-3 million boxes for the coming season.

Marketing: Our Northwest Cherries representatives are connecting with retailers and suppliers around the globe in anticipation of the crop.  In North America, digital promotions remain critical to reaching the massive growth in online shoppers.  However, whether consumers are shopping in stores or online, they all seem to be putting more focus on healthier eating and so are we.  The Northwest Cherry Growers maintains a list of approved health phrases and materials to help retailers draw attention to our superfruits on their shelves.  Moreover, this season will see the largest marketing campaign in our organization’s history…and it’s entirely focused on promoting the health benefits of sweet cherries.  To help align your promotion efforts with this campaign, don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly or contact your NW Cherries representative.  In case you missed our last email with those specific benefits listed out, you can revisit it here.

Marketing Points to Remember – 2021

  1. Multiple studies show single-bag cherry sales are over 70% impulse purchases. 
  2. Communicating their availability is KEY to capturing the first sale & the last.
  3. 42% of cherry buyers bought at least some cherries online in 2020
  4. Online shoppers were 2x more likely to be a weekly cherry buyer
  5. Online shoppers were 4x more likely to buy multiple bags of cherries
  6. Over 59% of surveyed cherry buyers were influenced by the health benefits of cherries when they made their decision to purchase last year.

    To learn more about our 2020 NWC research studies, click here.