Fresh cherry pie on the Fourth of July? Maybe not this year, and consumers can blame freezing spring temperatures in Utah and elsewhere in the West.
An April cold snap damaged pockets of the five-state cherry-growing region, and farmers are estimating their crop will be down 15 to 20 percent this year. Even more significant: The harvest will fall later in the season, which could make it more difficult for supermarkets, especially on the East Coast, to get a full supply in time for the midsummer holiday.
The harvest traditionally peaks in the third week of June.
"We're going to have 60 percent of our crop, maybe 65 percent, fall in July this year," said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Northwest Cherry Growers, a promotional group.
Sweet cherries are grown on 52,000 acres in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah, with Washington producing roughly half of the U.S. crop alone. Northwest growers harvested a record 147,800 tons, or 14.9 million boxes, in 2006, then nearly matched that a year later with 147,200 tons.
This year, the crop is estimated at 120,290 tons, or about 12 million boxes. Each standard box weighs 20 pounds.
In 2006 the most recent year for which numbers are available Utah produced 28 million pounds of tart cherries and 1,800 tons of sweet cherries. About 2,700 acres of Utah land produced tart cherries in 2006, and 550 acres were for sweet cherries.
Robert Hougaard, program manager at the Utah Department of Agriculture, said cold temperatures this spring snapped Utah's cherry orchards.
"The sweet cherries right now, they did suffer a pretty substantial loss," he said. "It affected the tart cherries more than the sweet cherries, but it has affected both. Most of that has been in Utah County, so far, Box Elder County seems to be OK but they don't produce as much."
Thurlby said the whir of wind machines and glow of oil-burning smudge pots anything to keep the buds from freezing were a clear sign that spring wasn't kind to cherry growers this year.
"It's just been ridiculous, this cold weather," he said.
At the same time, he said, consumers could see larger cherries this year.
"These trees have been thinned by Mother Nature, and when we see smaller crops, traditionally we see great-sized cherries," Thurlby said.
California, the first area to harvest, anticipates a crop of 7 million to 8 million boxes, slightly more than last year. Growers there also say they have a heavier early crop, which will get a good volume of cherries to consumers early.
Parts of the Northwest region also haven't been hit as hard by the cool spring temperatures. Idaho's crop is expected to nearly triple, from 1,000 to 2,800 tons. Montana's crop could decline slightly, from about 1,500 tons last year to 1,400 tons this season.
Washington has been hardest hit by the weather. Growers anticipate the harvest will be down nearly 27 percent, from 124,000 tons last year to just 91,000 this year.
However, because Washington has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, the crop still will be among the third- or fourth-largest ever recorded, Thurlby said.Washington sweet cherry acreage has increased from 30,000 to 36,000 acres in the past five years alone.