- The 2021 nW Cherry Growers Manager's Report -

Around the world, 2021 will be remembered as year two of the COVID pandemic.  In the Northwest cherry industry 2021 will be remembered as the year where a never seen before heat dome settled over the growing region for a week in June and early July.  Temperatures hit as high as 118 degrees for several days across the entire growing region.   The repercussions were cataclysmic as the heat stunted fruit and rendered 20% of the crop as un-harvestable.

The crop itself came in just over 20 million 20 lb. equivalent boxes.  The final crop shipped came in at 20,342,214 boxes which proved to be lower than the Round 1 industry estimate which came out on May 5, 2021 – of 23,800,000 – which with the heat disruption ended up being 15% below the original estimate.  The early portion of the crop was negatively affected by a market that was overflowing with smaller than normal California grown sweet cherries.  Certainly, a crop of 20 million boxes was still a significant sized crop to supply the world with Northwest cherries.  The Northwest Cherry Growers is the organization is charged with helping create demand that pulls our fruit into the market and creates consumer impressions that drive sustained consumption of our fruit. 

The global market continues to show repercussions relative to both COVID and the ongoing trade war with China.  Over the past several years, the Northwest cherry industry has had to deal with 60% tariffs on fruit shipped into China – which was are largest export market in 2017.  This has had a downward pricing impact on grower returns while cutting the volume into our best export market by more than half.  This has put further price pressure on both domestic and other export markets.   The current tariff scenario is expected to remain in place at through the coming season.

 As we enter 2022, we will once again be dealing with a market that is affected by COVID-19 and the China tariff situation.  The Northwest Cherry Growers will continue to find ways to drive demand for our fruit that is traditionally sold to consumers via grocery stores and purchased heavily on impulse.  From a horticultural standpoint, the number one issue facing Northwest sweet cherry producers continues to be the ongoing battle against “Little Cherry Disease”.  Growers in all five states are seeing this strain of tree killing disease creep into their orchards.  The industry is now on full alert with the scientific community putting together a task force to help identify and develop a sustainable plan to eradicate the malady.  As the battle for healthy orchards has carried into the new year – the Northwest Cherry Growers will continue to battle for new markets and increased shelf space around the globe. 

 The 2021 Northwest cherry harvest was the 6th largest crop ever shipped out of the five-state production region.  If you add in the California crop – the Pacific Coast crop was the second largest crop ever shipped with a total of 29.5 million 20 lb. equivalent boxes.  The 2021 season ran from June 1st to September 1st, a total of 92 days of shipments.  

 The peak shipping day in 2021 was June 29th – where 664,841 boxes were shipped.   The second largest day fell on June 25th where a total of 655,172 boxes were shipped. The Northwest industry shipped 8.3 million boxes in June (compared to 8.6 million boxes in June of 2020) which helped drive significant volume distribution to domestic retail well before the July 4th holiday.  

2021 Northwest Cherry Season Key Statistics

  • The industry shipped for 92 days in 2021.
  • The first shipments left the industry on June 1st and the last box shipped on September 1st
  • In comparison, we shipped for 94 days in 2020, 90 days in 2019 and 2018, 86 days in 2017 and 87 days in 2016.
  • As always, the brunt of the crop was shipped in 60 days from mid-June to mid-August.
  • The industry shipped 8.3 million 20 lb. boxes in June.
  • That’s roughly 300,000 more than last year.
  • For the second year in a row, the industry shipped 9.9 million boxes in July 
  • The NW shipped 12.8 million boxes in July 2019.
  • On June 29th, the industry shipped 664,841 boxes which was the 2021 peak shipping day. 
  • Last year’s peak was June 24thand 489,495 boxes
  • The second largest 2021 shipment day was June 25th  with 655,172 boxes.
  • The industry averaged over 356,083 boxes per day from July 1 to July 20th.
  • The industry averaged 506,527 boxes per day from June 24th to July 3rd.
  • The industry averaged 221,011 boxes per day during the 92 days of the 2021 season.  Similarly, the industry averaged 210,937 boxes per day in 2020. 
  • The Rainier cherry pack was 1.74 million 15 lb. equivalent boxes.
  • California started shipping cherries on April 21st and finished shipping on June 25th
  • In 2021, California shipped an industry record 10,203,019 18 lb. equivalent boxes
  • In 2020, CA shipped 6,626,785 18 lb. equivalent boxes
  • The California sweet cherry industry and the Northwest overlapped for 25 days
  • The combined Pacific coast volume produced a record overlap in June
  • California shipped 3.4 million boxes on top of Northwest fruit in 2021
  • The crop shipped was 71% domestic and 29% export in 2021
  • The crop shipped was 68% domestic and 32% export in 2020
  • Our largest export market, Canada, took 2,087,061 boxes in 2021
  • Our largest export market, Canada, took 2,145,626 boxes in 2020
  • Combined, China and Hong Kong imported 1,196,698 boxes in 2021
  • Combined, China and Hong Kong imported 1,084,162 boxes in 2020

Bloom Timing:  A Mild Winter and Spring Helps Harvest Begin on June 1, 2021

Another year, another summer of extreme weather, fires, hurricanes, droughts, storms, flooding, again we find ourselves barraged with head- lines of how terrible the summer was regarding climate. High temperatures are labeled as excruciating, record-breaking temperatures         are called devastating, every tropical storm is reported to bring catastrophe to the US and other countries, floods are “never before seen” and droughts are deadly.  When it comes to the Northwest states many of these headlines were accurate.   July was the hottest recorded July in history around the world.   The western drought in the United States has  been significant  and it has negatively affected the NW Cherry industry.   The weather trends of 2021 were both fairly normal in the Spring … then bizarrely extreme in late June and July.   As always in the Northwest Cherry industry, we take the high road and are left to view the Summer of 2021 as an “outlier” whose weather components are best viewed as a one-time anomaly and not an annual event.

During the spring of 2021, the Northwestern US was a little wetter than anticipated with an increase in late winter.   A cool early May slowed the degree day development across the growing districts enough to push the first harvest back to June 1 in our earliest orchards.   Unfortunately, the extreme heat we saw in June and July served to push the crop together a bit … which also included growers trying to avert disaster by harvesting ahead of the heat dome that saw June temperatures exceed 118 degrees Fahrenheit.

1999 to 2021 Historical June Shipments in Review

Adjacent is a chart showing the past 22 years of June shipments.  As you can see, we saw the 7th largest June shipment volume ever in 2021.  The first recorded shipments left the industry on June 1st.  The California crop shipped until June 22nd and led to 24 days of overlap – but lower volumes made the overlap negligible. 

The timing of this year’s crop was actually a positive for industry marketers as there was an intense sales window leading up to the 4th of July; then a several day wait for the Canadian varieties to mature and the usual heavy market push from mid-July to early August.

The Hottest July on Record Slowed Fruit Development in 2021

As we have seen regularly over the past decade, July was our single largest shipping month in 2021.  As the adjacent chart depicts, we saw 9.9 million 20 lb. equivalent boxes shipped in July this year.  We estimate that the crop volume was reduced by 20% in 2021; and most of that fruit would have been harvested in July.

To successfully get through July, the industry needs to have a mix of quality fruit, consumer demand and momentum from June fruit sales.  Between record heat and a large California crop the June market was not as robust as we saw in 2020.   We felt that the market was picking up momentum when the heat hit in June and market flow was disrupted leading into the 4th of July holiday. 

Growers waiting for fruit to size up leads to more volume in august

It remains relevant to note that the industry consistently shipped almost 4 million boxes after July 25th during the years 2011 to 2012.  Likewise, this phenomenon remains an annual opportunity for retailers and importers to maximize sweet cherry category sales almost to September.  The 2021 season saw a total of 2.1 million 20 lb. equivalent boxes shipped in August.  The last shipments left the industry on September 1st.  Over the last several years the Northwest has seen a series of record summer heat – which speeds up fruit maturity in fruit across the region and has reduced potential August volume.

It is important to note that most industry crop experts expect that the Northwest production region will see significant volume in August in the future. We know that nurseries report robust sales of both early and late varieties of cherries. Likewise, we know there are an abundance of high density/high elevation plantings of late harvest varieties like Sweetheart, Glory and Staccato that allow for shipments to last into September.

The Varieties: Bing Remains Northwest's Largest Volume Variety

As always, our industry certificates of compliance were heavy to “dark sweets” in 2021.  The variety designation “dark sweets” accounted for over 53% of the crop.  Each year, more retailers are requesting a box label/stamp that simply states “dark sweets” or “sweet cherries” with no mention of specific variety.  We set a light crop on the Bing variety in 2021 which came out to a known total of 1,963,996 20 lb. equivalent boxes which constituted 9% of the total crop.  We have lost Bing volume to both little cherry disease and growers planting varieties that have potential for more tonnage per acre than Bing traditionally offers.

This year the Northwest industry shipped 1,860,430 boxes of Sweethearts (8.8% of the crop) which was the second most prevalent variety. Of note, a couple of varieties jumped in volume this past year.   The growth varieties were Santina which increased by 37% from 150,024 to 206,103 20 lb. equivalent boxes.   The other variety that jumped up the volume chart was Coral Champagne – which increased by 111% year over year from 75,765 to 160,041 total boxes in 2021.   Clearly, some of the early plantings we have seen in recent years are now baring fruit.

Yellow Cherries Hit Hard by Heat in 2021

Again in 2021, early season wind affected the front end of the Northwest yellow cherry crop.  Unfortunately, the heat bubble that hit the industry in late June had a significant negative effect on the Rainier variety.  The 2021 Rainier or yellow cherry harvest produced what is best described as a “short” crop that came in at 1.74 million 15 lb. equivalent boxes.  This year’s crop was down 5% from the 2020 crop; it was down 29% when compared to the 2.41 million 15 lb. equivalent boxes shipped in 2019.  This year Rainiers made up 8% of the total crop.  Yellow cherries accounted for 15% of all cherries exported in 2021.  Leading export markets in terms of volume were Canada, China, Japan and Taiwan, respectively. 

The yellow cherry crop saw reasonable demand from beginning to end of the season.  Below is a chart that shows how the yellow cherry crop shipped in 15 lb. equivalents over the last decade.  The industry increased its Rainier volume by 185% during that time. 

If you are a retailer, it is important to note that there is an important trend occurring in what is a new “early” variety of Rainier.  This variety is called the “Early Robin” and while it is indiscernible from a traditional Rainier, it is picked a full week ahead of the traditional Rainier variety and has almost identical qualities.

organic sweet cherry production in washington state

For the tree fruit industry and sweet cherries, the organic sector will continue to be a key piece of our future business.  U.S. organic sales soared to new highs in 2020, jumping by a record 12.4 percent to $61.9 billion or almost 6 percent of the food sold in the United States. It marked the first time that total sales of organic food and non-food products have surpassed the $60 billion mark, and reflected a growth rate more than twice the 2019 pace of 5 percent, according to the 2021 Organic Industry Survey released by the Organic Trade Association.[1]  

 [1] Organic Trade Association Annual Report 2021

For 2021, the Washington State sweet cherry industry shipped 46,267 tons of organic sweet cherries, up from 4,049 tons in 2020.  This correlates to 626,738 20 lb. equivalent boxes – which shows an increase year over year of 51%.  Based on the fruit picked in Washington only, organics make up 3% of this year’s shipped crop – which was a slight increase from the year before as organics made up 2.2% of the total crop. 

As a benchmark, organic production was just over 1% of the total crop as recently as 2009 – which indicates a continued net growth in this important sub-category.

Row Size & Quality of the 2021 Cherry Crop

We say this every year …. But the reality is that large, sweet cherries drive repeat sales at retail both domestically and in export markets.  Larger cherries drive a larger return for growers.  Collectively, it is our goal to produce the best sweet cherries in the world and growers have plenty of incentives to farm in a way that produces the largest possible cherries.  Row size continues to be an important indicator of quality … and has become a critical standard by which growers measure their production success.  Industry post-harvest research points to the fact that larger cherries have a longer shelf life and, on average, have higher sugar levels … which lead to a better eating experience for the consumer.  The team at the NWCG hosts numerous educational days for growers and attempts to relay this philosophy to the entire grower base.  It is safe to say that “quality” is a key factor in the successful sales and promotion strategy that our industry implements each year.  Likewise, the emergence of new technology optical sizing and sorting machinery within the packing facilities has further raised the bar on the “cherry that goes into the box”. 

Last year, the extreme heat cost growers at least a half row size that they would normally achieve.  Still 80% of the total crop was shipped as 10.5 row and larger – in 2020 the industry shipped 84% of the crop as 10.5 row and larger.  In comparing the 2021 crop with the 2020 crop there were actually more 10 and 10 ½ row cherries this past season.  However, where the industry really saw a difference in row size was in 9 ½ row and larger size fruit.

Cherry Export Markets of 2021

The 2021 NW Cherry export market was under stress from both COVID and trade war issues with China.  Despite these challenges, NWCG programs had a positive effect on demand from the export markets. Despite the loss of the Chinese market to the US-China Trade War, the export markets continue to be a critical piece of how and where the NW cherry crop is sold. 

In 2021, the NWCG ran promotion programs in 17 countries.  Marketing strategies for the export markets continue to focus on creating a regional identity associated with the very best quality cherries found on earth … grown in our unique corner of the United States.  NWCG works to associate Northwest cherries with healthy, clean, and environmentally conscious production practices.  This strategy has helped us develop many new export markets over the past decade. 

From a marketing standpoint, the industry has found that for the growers to sustain financial success, the export market needs to absorb between 25% and 30% of the annual crop.  The chart above shows the percentage of the crop that has been exported since 1999.  The 2021 season saw 5.9 million 20 lb. boxes exported.  This portion of the crop accounted for 29.2% of the volume and 32.4% of the dollar sales in 2021. 

Total export market volume was down relative to the shorter crop; however, the trade war with China and global pandemic that was hitting Asia particularly hard during the summer months had broad level negative impact on export sales.   Particularly, the South East Asia region of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines were hit hard by COVID and national lockdowns during our harvest.  Shipments to the South East Asia region were down 56% from pre-pandemic levels of 2019.   

On a positive note, the NW industry shipped over 418,000 20 lb. equivalent boxes to Mexico – which was an increase of 417% over the 2020 season.   As the industry moves toward the 2022 season it is worth noting that for the first time in 2022 the industry will have a systems approach access to India.   We began preparing the Indian market with care and handling training seminars this past season and believe that over time, India will become a higher volume market for NW Cherries.

Northwest Cherries Acreage Overview

Based on USDA NASS surveys, the state of Washington now has 42,198 acres of sweet cherries planted.  Likewise, the average tree density per acre count in Washington is 270 trees per acre.  Based on previous surveys in Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah, the total acreage for the Northwest is estimated at 61,995 acres. 

This data is from 2017, and as the last acreage survey was done in 2011, the Northwest crop has increased by 11% during that 5-year window:


Overall, it is estimated that the Northwest has just under 61,000 acres of sweet cherries in production – with new plantings still occurring but the removal of trees and acreage due to “Little Cherry Disease” has served to mitigate overall acreage growth for the Northwest production region.  Fresh tonnage for the Northwest has averaged 230,423 over the past five years – which correlates to just over 23 million 20 lb. equivalent boxes per year.  In other words, a 20 million box crop is the expectation on any given year despite the fact that forecasting in the cherry business is not an exact science because of the many factors affecting availability each season.  The near term (over the next 5 years) forecast is that Northwest crops will continue to range from 200,000 to 250,000 tons of fresh sweet cherries.  However, based on USDA acreage information that shows an acreage assumption of 60,000 acres of sweet cherries – it is clear that the Northwest industry could produce between 300,000 and 350,000 tons of sweet cherries for the fresh market if the right production conditions were to fall into place.

Little Cherry Disease in the Northwest Cherry Industry

In the Pacific Northwest, our fresh cherry crop harvest begins in late May or early June.  With over 60,000 acres across 5 states, we are expecting to have a quality crop of fruit for market in 2020.  However, the work of growing sweet cherries is a year-round affair and it’s getting longer, thanks to the evident spread of a group of pathogens collectively referred to as Little Cherry Disease.  New research from a multi-state task force indicates that beyond tree and/or orchard removal, it’s necessary to control the vectors within orchards for months past harvest, adding additional costs and challenges to already burdened growers.  Beyond that, it appears that intervention has removed several million boxes of production capability for the coming season.  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 has 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.  This image shows what infected cherries look like on the tree.  Once a grower finds this in the tree, the tree is marked for removal and fewer cherries go to market.

Pacific Coast Cherry Industry

Current USDA acreage data suggests that the Pacific Coast industry is nearing a total of 100,000 acres of sweet cherries.  In 2021, California shipped the largest crop they had ever harvested.   They shipped a total of   lb. equivalent boxes.  Combined, California and the Northwest shipped over 29.5 million 20 lb. equivalent boxes.  As mentioned previously in this report, there was a significant overlap between the Northwest and California this year – with 25 days of overlap shipments.  However, the lack of volume in California mitigated any negative market issues for Northwest growers. 

Generally, the overlap between the Northwest and California is a non-issue.   However, as the growers in California harvested a record size crop there was also record crossover of shipments in 2021.   

The “California’s Overlapping Volume” chart shows the total shipments into the market while the Northwest harvest was underway over the past five years:

Sweet Cherry Advertised Pricing in the U.S. Market 2021
Sweet Cherry Advertised Pricing in the U.S. Market 2021

As the industry entered June it was clear that there were California cherries saturating the domestic market.   Historically, the California industry has not needed to run very many ads to push their smaller sized crops through the retail system.   Unfortunately, this year would have been a great year for some extra ads in May and early June.  As you can see from the chart below the average promoted price for California cherries in May and early June was floating between $5 and $4 per pound.  The average everyday retail during this time was close to $7 per pound which resulted in slow movement on ultra-expensive fruit.

California’s percent of U.S. sweet cherry shipping volume increased significantly in 2021.   The Northwest Cherry Grower volume was 69% and California was 31% of the U.S. crop.   For comparison, in 2020 the Northwest made up 85% of the volume and California made up 15% of the U.S. fresh sweet cherry crop.   Likewise, CA’s percent of export sales was also higher this year.   California exported 22,019 tons and the NW exported 57,350 tons.   There are no other states exporting sweet cherries.    In this case, California shipped 28% of the exported fruit and the Northwest shipped 72%. 

California seems hit a big crop about every 4 years.   To illustrate that, here is a chart showing the volume of California crops over the past 17 years – with the yellow years appearing at approximately 4 year intervals.

Regardless, both industries work to communicate crop load and timing; which overall has helped in an orderly transition between the end of the California crop and beginning of the Northwest crop.  Lastly, the Northwest and California industries have worked together over the past several years to establish open dialogue and shared efforts on numerous fronts including partnering on health-based research surrounding sweet cherries.

Historical California Shipments in 18 lb. Boxes

Northwest Cherry Growers
Yakima, WA, U.S.A.