Aug 2, 2021
Crop outlook a mixed bag for growers

A major heat wave that caused unprecedented temperatures in the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July was the starkest example of weather events that have negatively impacted fruit growing regions across the U.S. in 2021.

Crop estimates for the Northwest cherry production season alone account for an estimated 20% drop in output, complicated by advanced harvest dates and night harvesting to shield work crews from the oppressive conditions.

Following is a preliminary snapshot of major fruit crops produced in the country.

Tight strawberry supply

For the first two months of 2021, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) data from the March Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook showed total strawberry shipments down 21% from the same period in 2020. Heavy rains in California and lower than normal temperatures in Florida resulted in tight U.S. supplies. February 2021 fresh strawberry shipments compared to February 2020 were down: Florida (down 55%), Mexico (down 31%) and winter shipments from California (down 52%).

USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported the January 2021 grower price up compared to December 2020 which reflected the lower supply. Consistent with grower prices, AMS strawberry shipping point prices and U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics strawberry retail prices were up in January and February 2021 compared to a year ago.

Based on the annual acreage survey conducted by the California Strawberry Commission (CSC), total California strawberry acreage in 2021 is 36,487. To keep up with demand, 2020 fall planted acres increased 5.7%. The increase in plantings, combined with higher yielding varieties, is predicted to increase California production in 2021 compared to the previous year.

Despite a decrease in shipments in mid-March 2020 when the U.S. lockdown began, U.S. shipments increased in 2020. The CSC reported that total state shipments in 2020 were 1,892 million pounds, up 4% from the previous year. Total shipments from Florida for calendar year 2020 were up 20% from the previous year. Fresh strawberry import volume in 2020 (almost all from Mexico) increased 6% over the previous year.

The increase in U.S. supplies led to a slight increase in exports in 2020 from the previous year, and increased availability of fresh strawberries for the domestic market. The Processing Strawberry Advisory Board of California reported the 2020 pack estimate for frozen strawberries in the United States at 359.7 million pounds, product-weight equivalent, down slightly from the previous year and below average levels of recent years.

High initial blueberry prices

The U.S. blueberry market started the year with high prices in January because of the tight supplies of imported blueberries in the market. Total January 2021 imports were down 5% from January 2020. Peru and Chile are the two largest foreign suppliers to the U.S. market. January imports from Peru were down 32% from the previous January due to delays reported at the Los Angeles, California, port in combination with the early tapering off of production in Peru. Imports from Chile were up 4.5% despite labor issues due to COVID-19 in Chile and heavy rains during the final weeks of the harvest in March.

Shipping point prices started high in January 2021 and increased through the week ending Feb. 20 to $18 per flat compared to $15 per flat the same week in 2020. Early domestic blueberry production starts with the Florida crop (except for small volumes from California), with peak supplies from April through early May.

AMS reported the first shipments from Florida in 2021 for the week ending March 13. California produces blueberries year-round, with larger supplies from May to July.

The North American Blueberry Council estimated the 2020 total U.S. blueberry crop at 627 million pounds, down 6% from last year, with 340.8 million pounds for the fresh market and 286.3 million pounds for the processing market.

Among the top blueberry-producing states, Oregon, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida were down from 2019, while California and Washington production increased. U.S. fresh blueberry imports rose to a record 482 million pounds in 2020, a slight increase from the previous year’s record volume.

Imports from Peru and Mexico grew 22% and 24%, increasing their share of the U.S. fresh blueberry import market. Total fresh blueberry imports decreased 13% from Chile in 2020, with conventional blueberries down 18% and organic blueberries up 11%. In 2020, U.S. blueberry exports decreased 26% from 2019 to 59 million pounds. U.S. exports were down to the top supplier, Canada, which accounted for 91% of U.S. fresh blueberry exports in 2020.

Tight blueberry supplies

A July 19 report from Graceland Fruit indicated blueberry supplies in North America were currently tighter than anticipated. The heat wave affected large swaths of the West Coast – inconsistent reports were coming in, some reporting no problems to their crop while others saw full crops of sunburnt blueberries. All were watchful on crop outcomes as the West Coast remains the largest growing region.

Cultivated blueberry harvest was underway in Michigan; with most berries picked to that point going into the fresh market. Picking for the processed market was starting to increase. Michigan cultivated blueberries continued to do well, reporting good quality. Reports coming in from New Jersey indicated there was less fruit than initially anticipated. The U.S. Southern region was still picking but the season was wrapping up quickly. Typically, the fruit coming out of these areas primarily supply customers of that region.

British Columbia was also starting harvest, and having also experienced that same heat wave, growers in the eastern part of the province looked to be more affected than growers in the western part of the province. Anticipated price increases were anticipated due to strong demand, low frozen inventory, potential issues coming out of the West Coast, and overall price increases farmers are facing for labor, supply chain and materials.

Graceland Fruit reported on July 19 on wild blueberries grow along the Eastern Seaboard where the weather is known to be unpredictable. Four out of the five major growing regions remained on track for an average wild blueberry crop.

“Due to strong demand, we may face an increase in pricing even if we have a larger crop,” the report indicated.

Confidence in cranberries

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s cranberries are grown in the United States, and over 60% of the U.S. crop is grown in Wisconsin, the primary source for Graceland Fruit cranberries. In its July 19 report, Graceland indicated its grower relations agent meeting with the company’s cranberry growers at their marshes were helping to monitor crop outlook, collecting reports and remaining in constant daily contact with the growers.

“At this time, we are getting reports of an ‘optimistically average crop,”’ the report indicated. “Wisconsin cranberries are starting to show signs of some minor issues with the Stevens variety, but the earlier hybrids seem to be on track for a good year. The crop in Canada appears to be coming on stronger now. More growers in this region are switching from organic to conventional, and we expect a volume increase to be available this year. Harvest is just a few short months away now, and our team continues to monitor crop outlooks.”

Coming off turbulent 2020

In April, Chris Laughton, Farm Credit East’s director of knowledge exchange, and who serves as the FarmStart program manager, reflected on how different sectors of the fruit industry had highs and lows in 2020.

“Apples showed a smaller crop than usual, but cranberries did well due to increased retail juice sales. The wine and craft beverage sector was hit hard early in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, but bounced back with the availability of online ordering and curbside pickup,” Laughton wrote.

When the 2020 fall apple harvest was complete, estimates were for a smaller Northwest crop, which typically drives the market. The USDA estimate for the 2020 Washington apple crop was 7.40 billion pounds, a 3% decrease from 2019’s large harvest, but still slightly greater than their 5-year average. The national crop for 2020 was expected to come in around 3% below the 5-year average due to declines in other states.

New York’s 2020 harvest was estimated at 1.30 billion pounds, 2% below 2019 and 2% below the 5-year average.

A smaller crop, improving export markets and solid domestic demand have improved the pricing and profit outlook for 2021.

“Producers with modern, in-demand varieties should see positive profits, while those with more dated varieties may struggle with soft pricing,” Laughton said.

Industry analysts are awaiting reports from the USApple Outlook conference scheduled for Aug. 19-20 in Chicago.

Weather crimps tart cherries

As the tart cherry harvest was underway in Michigan, the Cherry Industry Administrative Board (CIAB) released U.S. crop estimates on June 19, 2021. This year’s crop estimate was considerably down compared to the 10-year average U.S. tart cherry crop, which is 247 million pounds.

“While we are experiencing a short crop this year, we have seen good quality coming in off the fields; fruit has been good color and continues to increase in size,” CIAB reported. “Our cherry cooperative will be wrapping up harvest this week. The European Union (Poland and Turkey) has started cherry harvest, and reports currently indicate a decent crop.”

Michigan’s tart cherry production forecast is down 5% compared to last year, accounting for roughly 65.6 million pounds, or a decline of 3.7 million pounds of cherries, according to NASS. This figure is 33% down from a typical year.

Nationally, USDA NASS forecasts a 2% increase in tart cherry production, with early cold spells affecting production in Michigan and Wisconsin.

All growing regions in Michigan have endured drought this season, coming on the heels of multiple freezes and poor pollination weather in some areas. Late freezes in both 2020 and 2021 resulted in the first ever back-to-back significant crop losses for the Michigan cherry industry.

“This year, Michigan’s tart cherries were two to three weeks ahead of normal and then experienced eight to 12 freezes,” said Audrey Sebolt, horticulture specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Processors had to restrict daily grower volumes last year due to significant labor shortages in the processing plants.

Sweet cherry prices dampened

In an installment of the “Agronometrics in Charts” series, Christian Crespo illustrated how the U.S. sweet cherry market was evolving.

For the majority of this year, average cherry prices were much lower than those recorded in 2020.

Within an increase in cherry volumes in the U.S. market, the most significant increase, and that may have created a decrease in prices, were the volumes from California. This increase was seen between weeks 21 to 25 (the second half of the season). California cherry supplies were also the highest in the last five years, with a historic peak in week 21 of almost 18.2 million kilograms.

It is necessary to see since the volume of California had begun to decrease if this will affect price, Crespo reported. It is also necessary to observe what happens with cherry prices in the U.S. market while the Oregon and Washington harvests are in full swing along with the Canadian crop.

“We must be attentive to the effects of the most recent heat wave that could affect the size and quality of the fruit from these areas,” Crespo said. “Volumes from Washington and Oregown are already showing much less volume than last year.”

— Gary Pullano, editor


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