Cherries, and growers, caught in international trade war

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald Kole Tonnemaker of Tonnemaker Farms, Royal City, moves cherry bins out of storage at the family fruit stand. Cherry harvest 2018 is conducted in the context of a trade war, which is having an effect on markets and prices.

ROYAL SLOPE — Cherry season 2018 is winding down; it looks like a big crop and a good quality crop – but while that’s important it’s not the most important thing about cherries right now.

Quality and crop size are not the topic of conversation among growers, marketers and shippers. The question of the hour is trade wars.

Cherry season traditionally peaks in early July, around July 4 to 10, but growers are picking into early August, depending on variety and elevation. And of course marketers are selling. So far no one has figured out how to prolong storage of cherries.

The 2018 cherry crop came to market as the administration of President Donald Trump began instituting tariffs on products from countries around the world, including some major consumers of U.S. agricultural products. Trade wars being what they are, some of those countries have instituted tariffs on U.S. products in retaliation, including fruit.

Mark Powers of the Northwest Horticultural Council said Northwest cherry growers traditionally would ship about 3 million boxes to China, with an estimated value of about $130 million. But these are not traditional times. For the moment, “for all intents and purposes, at this point, the market is closed.”

China was the leading export market for Northwest apples and cherries. “We (Washington and Northwest fruit growers) have a reputation of high quality,” Powers said, and stringent food safety rules, which are important to Chinese consumers.

The Trump administration announced Wednesday that it would provide $12 billion in offset support to farmers affected by tariffs. “We’re very interested in that,” Powers said.

The concern, he said, is the future. “How long is this going to last? That’s the question.” Traditionally the fruit industry hasn’t received price supports, but if there’s a way to help people who have been hurt by tariff actions, it behooves the country to look at it, he said.

“We’ll see,” he said.

And the cherries? Oh, the cherries. Tim Kovis, communications manager for the Washington Tree Fruit Association, said he’s talked to growers around the region. Growers are reporting “a much higher quality of cherries” in 2018, he said.

The crop projection for 2018 was about 23 million boxes, Kovis said, which would make it the second-largest in state history. As of July 24, the price for cherries was steady, according to the USDA market report.

Size matters in cherries, with bigger cherries bringing more money; traditionally, cherries are measured by the numbers it takes to fill a row in an old-time cherry box. (The measurement system has since been codified, but it’s still called by the old name.) Nine-row red cherries were bringing $34 to $40 per box, while 9.5-row cherries were being sold for $30 to $35 per box. Ten-row cherries were being sold for $26 to $32.90 per box, and 10.5 row cherries were bringing $26 to $30.90 per box.

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at education@columbiabasinherald.com.

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