Bumper cherry crop sweetens WA’s farm economy | Brunell

The good news is this state’s cherry crop looks good — a marked improvement over 2022. It is sweetening our farm economy, especially for cherry growers who have struggled over the last five years.

“Last year’s cold, wet April brought down the cherry crop,” the Wenatchee World recently reported. “But this year, the Washington state cherry harvest is in full swing, and the industry is optimistic about it.”

Washington’s cherry growers expect to pick 21 million 20-pound boxes, which is up from 13 million last year and 20 million in 2021. Harvesting started in June and wraps up in mid-August.

Cherries, unlike apples, are highly perishable. They must be moved to market quickly and cannot be stored for extended periods, even when refrigerated.

Washington is the nation’s top sweet cherry producer, according to the Northwest Horticultural Council. The Northwest grew three-fourths of America’s sweet cherries in 2022.

According to Washington Department of Agriculture data, cherries generate $400 million in yearly revenue. Orchardists are among the 40,000 farmers in Washington. Our agriculture and food processing support 164,000 jobs and generates more than $20.4 billion annually.

Unlike manufacturers, such as Boeing, which have more control over production, successfully growing fruit depends heavily on the weather. Lately, frigid spring temperatures and unseasonable blistering summers have reduced yields, and in cases, have damaged and killed trees.

However, this year’s “big bloom” of cherry blossoms packed trees with cherries. The expected outcome is a 30 percent upsurge. That is the good news. The unwelcome news is inflation and market limitations remain pesky problems.

For example, domestic growers still struggle with high tariffs resulting from trade wars started five years ago.

In 2018, the Trump Administration levied $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods in attempts to level the playing field for American companies. China’s retaliatory duties cost Washington’s 2,500 cherry growers an estimated $86 million.

“Today, on top of the Chinese 10 percent tariff on imported fresh fruits that has always been in place, since the trade war started in 2018, tariffs on cherries have increased 15 percent, then an additional 25 percent, then 5 percent more for a total of 55 percent — and that doesn’t include shipping, insurance, and their costs involved in getting the product to the buyer,” the U.S.-China Business Council stated.

Despite China’s tariff, it was the second-leading importer behind Canada last year. Taiwan was a close third. However, absent among buyers of Washington apples and cherries is India, now the world’s most populous nation. In 2018, India also imposed retaliatory barriers on 28 U.S. products including apples and cherries.

Washington’s congressional delegation led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R) are pressing the U.S. Trade Representative to break down India’s duties and trade obstacles.

In January, Cantwell wrote: “The tree fruit industry has suffered significant losses due to India’s retaliation for U.S. Section 232 tariffs. On average, 30 percent of the apples, cherries and pears produced in the Pacific Northwest are exported and India was once a strong market.”

International trade is one impediment, but rampant inflation and spiking costs of doing business are huge hurdles.

“Gas prices in Washington have shot up $1.18 since the start of the year — Florida’s have remained flat — and are now averaging $4.97 a gallon compared to a national average of $3.49,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Those exorbitant costs are impossible to pass along to consumers, especially in highly competitive global markets.

While the weather is unpredictable, costs are controllable. If our state’s growers are to compete against orchardists in neighboring states and international rivals, new laws that spiked gas prices should be reversed.

Inflation must be controlled and trade barriers must come down.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He is a former president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. Contact thebrunells@msn.com.