Disaster designation sought for Washington’s sweet cherry growers

Federal lawmakers have asked the Secretary of Agriculture to expedite a request by Gov. Jay Inslee for a “secretarial disaster designation” for fresh sweet cherries.

Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Agriculture

Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Agriculture

By Randy Bracht | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – Mother Nature threw a curve at West Coast cherry growers last year, with topsy-turvy weather that led to oversupplies, unharvested crops, and significant economic losses, say members of Washington state’s congressional delegation.

On Friday, the 12 federal lawmakers announced they have asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to expedite review of last November’s request by Gov. Jay Inslee for a “secretarial disaster designation” for fresh sweet cherries in Washington state, a top agricultural commodity typically valued over $1 billion.

There are estimates that one-third to one-half of last year’s crop went unharvested by state growers due to weather-related conditions. A disaster designation would enable them to access low-interest emergency loans to help bridge operations into the 2024 season.

In a bipartisan Feb. 1 letter to Vilsack, Washington’s congressional delegation explained that a normal West Coast cherry harvest spans 120 days. But a cold spring that abruptly transitioned into sustained temperatures in the 90s last April “compressed” the bloom period for cherry growers in the Pacific Northwest while cold weather and heavy rains delayed California’s season.

As a result, 70% of the crop matured in a 30-day span between June 20 and July 20 along the West Coast. That compressed period led to an oversupply of cherries and Northwest growers were forced to leave 35% or more of their crop unharvested, the lawmakers said.

“The 2023 season has harmed sweet cherry growers in Washington state and it has negatively impacted our state’s agricultural economy,” wrote U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

“On behalf of the growers in the state of Washington, we request an expedited review and subsequent USDA Secretarial Disaster Designation for the Central and Eastern Washington counties so growers can access critical federal assistance and continue to grow and harvest sweet cherries in the upcoming 2024 season,” the letter stated.

Along with Cantwell, the letter was signed by fellow U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and the state’s 10 House members: Democratic Representatives Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, Derek Kilmer, Suzan DelBene, Adam Smith, Dr. Kim Schrier, Marilyn Strickland, Rick Larsen, and Pramila Jayapal and Republicans Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse.

In particular, cherries are significant crops grown in Newhouse’s 4thCongressional District in central Washington and the other eastern Washington portions of Rodgers’ 5th District and Schrier’s 8th District.

Last week, Gluesenkamp Perez also introduced the Partnerships for Agricultural Climate Action Act along with Schrier and Strickland to support Washington producers in protecting their operations from extreme weather events.

It was not specified when Vilsack or the U.S. Department of Agriculture will respond to the disaster designation request