Tart cherry production nationwide is up significantly, causing a drop in prices by as much as half while the sweet cherry crop in Utah and the Northwest is smaller than last year, pushing prices higher.
"Prices for sweet cherries are two to three times higher than last year — Mother Nature was not kind — and if you don’t buy some in the next five to 10 days, you may be out of luck," said Chris Romeril, spokesman for Associated Food Stores, a grocery cooperative of 400 independent grocers in the Intermountain West.
Online sweet cherry exports
Farmers in Utah and four Western states export about 30 percent of their sweet cherries, valued at $382 million, according to the Northwest Cherry Growers trade group.
To tap into the overseas market, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Tmall, a Chinese-language website for business-to-consumer service, held an online food campaign this season. Twenty tons of cherries were pre-ordered in the first three days of the campaign, taking place June 27 to July 11.
Chinese consumers are increasingly turning to e-commerce for their everyday shopping needs, and imported food products, especially those from the U.S., have been popular, officials said.
Canada is the top export market for growers in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Montana, followed by Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.
Sweet » Ranked No. 7, top producers are Washington, California and Oregon, respectively.
Tart » Ranked No. 2, behind Minnesota; other top producers are Washington and Wisconsin
Utah’s best years » Sweet: 7,700 pounds, 1968; tart: 39.95 million pounds, 2012
Source: Utah Department of Agriculture and Food
The 2013 sweet crop will be well short of last year’s record, according to Northwest Cherry Growers trade group.
Growers and marketers from Washington — the nation’s No. 1 producer — as well as Utah (ranked No. 7), Oregon, Idaho and Montana made the estimates. But the lighter crop should mean larger average fruit size that attracts better prices, B.J. Thurlby, president of the Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission, said in a statement.
Northern Utah grower Thayne Tagge said, "Our crop was light, but it was still OK, and we had to charge a little more. Frost got to most of the crops in the state, it just depended on where you were for how badly you were hit."
Typically, sweet cherries are sold and eaten fresh.
Its tart counterpart, also called sour or pie cherries, are best known as ingredients in desserts and beverages. Nearly all tart cherries are frozen, canned or dried.
Nationwide, tart cherry production should be up, according to industry leaders meeting in Michigan, the nation’s No. 1 producer.
Industry representatives said this year’s crop in Michigan could top 276 million pounds, compared to last year’s disastrous harvest that fell to less than 75 million pounds.
Last year Utah’s banner harvest comprised nearly half of the U.S. tart cherry production after frost damaged fruits in the big producing states of Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
This year, Utah’s tart cherry production is estimated at 25 million pounds, down from 39.9 million last year. Typically, Utah is the nation’s second largest producer.
Payson grower Robert McMullin, who is an alternate on the Cherry Industry Administrative Board that helps set market rates, said prices should be half of what consumers and processors paid last year when U.S. production was so low.
"Prices this year should be back down to 2011 levels," said McMullin. "It’s not a wonderful price for us, but we can survive. It’s the old law of supply and demand."
Cherry production figures are guesstimates because the government reporting services have drastically cut back on compiling agricultural data focusing on the status of America’s food basket.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has suspended its longtime forecasts and production reports because of federal budget cuts, or sequestration. Reports have been suspended on other crops and livestock as well, including vegetables, milk, rice, potatoes, beans, fish and cattle.
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