You may think ‘apples’ when you think of produce that is plentiful in the Northwest, but cherries – Bing, Rainier, Chelan, Lapin and other varieties – take pride of place here too.
In the past five years the Northwest Cherry Industry packed and sold an average of 196,000 tons of fresh cherries, reaching an all time high of 232,000 tons in 2014.
Weather conditions are good for cherries this year and growers are expecting perhaps another record crop.
Getting to eat fresh cherries is a treat here in the U.S. this time of year but, as I learned at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, about 30 percent of the Northwest cherry crop gets exported, with most of the our best cherries going to China. There, cherries that can sometimes approach the size of golf balls (!) sell for up to $1 a piece, according to Keith Hu of the Northwest Cherry Growers.
This cherry-themed Boeing 777 freighter operated by China Cargo (a division of China Eastern Airlines) and dubbed the “Cherry Express” is just one of the planes used to ferry Northwest cherries to Asia to the tune of more than 40 million pounds in 2016 and possibly more this year. And that’s just the cherries that fly via Seattle.
During the season an average of 6 or 7 freighters filled with cherries leave Seattle for China, and Korea, with more cherries flying out of airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago to accommodate demand, according to Hu.
Premium Northwest cherries in Asia can sell for up to $10 a pound, said Hu, and are considered a “unique, rare, safe, nutritional and sexy product.”
Pallets of Northwest cherries make it from the trees to grocery shops in Asia in just a few days.