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Cherry growers and shippers in the Pacific Northwest are starting to exhale as they prepare to move into production for this season's crop. Unlike 2008, the year during which frost severely damaged the annual crop, prospects for 2009 have the industry excited.

"We've had really nice growing conditions all the way through," Andrew Willis, Northwest Cherry Growers promotion director, told The Produce News in late May. "We had a nice-sized bloom. The pollination period was really ideal. We're looking at what we see as a pretty good crop." Producers anticipate good product quality in 2009.

There are approximately 56,000 acres planted to sweet cherries in the Pacific Northwest this season. The region is comprised of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Montana. Both early and late varieties are produced. Bings continue to be the top variety by volume, accounting for 55 percent of the annual crop. Rainiers come in at 12 percent, and varieties such as Chelan, Tieton, Skeena and Sweetheart account for the balance.

While it is too early to predict actual volume, Mr. Willis said that he expects tonnage will exceed 2007 totals. Production ramps up during the latter part of June, and cherry production continues through July. Cool spring weather will delay initial production by about a week, but Mr. Willis said, "We should have ample production to get cherries to everyone who wants them. There's going to be great cherry availability throughout the summer."

According to Mr. Willis, 70 percent of the annual crop is marketed domestically. The balance of volume is exported to Canada, Southeast Asia, Australia and Europe. "Mexico is a budding market for us," Mr. Willis said. He was not sure how new tariffs imposed by the Mexican government will affect this year's exports. "The Mexican market has had a lot of surprises for us in the last decade," he said.

On the home front, the July 4 holiday is traditionally a time for brisk cherry sales at retail. "[July 4] is on a Saturday this year," Mr. Willis said. "I expect it will be good because people get out and plan more."

July 11 is National Rainier Cherry Day, and the designation coincides with peak Rainier production. The variety is higher in sugar content, and it continues to grow in popularity with consumers. Mr. Willis said that producers are increasing acreage devoted to Rainier production as a result.

Growers continue to examine techniques to help maximize production. Orchard netting helps keep birds at bay. According to Mr. Willis, birds can eat up to a ton of cherries per acre. One grower, he added, is using falcons as a way to ward off birds, and other growers are using noisemakers.

"The techniques are eco-friendly and humane," he noted. "A number of our shippers have really taken that on as a corporate identity."

Reflective strips made of a white fabric are also being placed between tractor rows to help accelerate cherry maturing. The technique also helps boost sugar content and gives cherries a richer color. "It's a great way -- in addition to pruning -- to get more sunlight to the cherries," Mr. Willis said.

Organic cherry production continues to increase annually. "Growing organic cherries is difficult," Mr. Willis said. "But we have very skilled growers, so the transition to organic is seamless."

Northwest Cherry Growers is pursuing food shopping avenues to market cherries for its members this season. "We are very aware of the economy and the mindset of consumers," Mr. Willis said. "Cherries have traditionally been an impulse item."

As consumers tighten their purse strings, Mr. Willis said that research shows shifting purchasing patterns. "Retailers are seeing loyal customers go to 70 percent shopping list and 30 percent impulse," he said. "We're making an inordinate effort to spread the word about cherries outside retail."

Although the produce department is the most heavily trafficked area at retail, Mr. Willis said that some retailers are getting creative in the placement of some cherry displays, bringing them up to the store's front end. "Moving cherries near checkout has been highly successful," he noted.

(For more on the Northwest cherry deal, see the June 1 issue of The Produce News.)