This is turning out to be a very good season for Washington cherry growers. It could be a record harvest, with an increasingly global reach.
Asia has a growing appetite for Northwest cherries, but could politics disrupt this blossoming market?
“There's no place like it in the world,” said Kyle Mathison, a fourth-generation cherry grower on Stemilt Hill in Wenatchee.
“We've been scratching the dirt for over 100 years trying to make a living growing these cherries,” he said, during the peak of the cherry harvest this week.
Warm, sunny days and cool nights make it the Napa Valley of cherries.
“It's like Mother Nature coming in and kissing each one with sweetness,” Mathison said before biting into one of his fruits.
He could talk all day about his life’s passion, but there are tons of fruit hanging on his trees, and he only has a brief window to pick, process, and pack what is expected to be a record crop.
“It's a challenge when we have big crops; what are we going to do with these cherries?” he said.
Increasingly, he’s sending his Northwest morsels to Asia.
In South Korea, you can find Wenatchee cherries stacked at street markets, among kimchi and fish.
It’s all thanks to a six-year-old trade deal, called KORUS, which slashed tariffs on products like cherries.
“It's been a real blessing to have this export market where we have such a huge volume, especially this year,” Mathison said.
According to the Northwest Cherry Growers, an industry association, cherry exports to Korea have grown steadily since the trade deal took effect. Today, they're double what they were four years ago.
China is eating them up, too. In 2013 the Pacific Northwest sent them 11,000 tons of cherries. This year, exports are expected to top 23,000 tons.
At Stemilt headquarters, entire processing lines are dedicated to Asia exports. The fruit is quickly boxed and trucked to Sea-Tac Airport, where a new "cherry express" long-haul 777 freighter is idling on the tarmac.
But the trade relationship with Korea has hit some turbulence.
“From when the U.S. - Korea trade deal was signed in 2011 to 2016, and you know who signed it, you know who wanted it, our trade deficit with South Korea has increased by more than $11 billion, not exactly a great deal,” President Donald Trump said from the White House lawn in June.
He says imports of Korean autos and steel are threatening American jobs and his administration is already in the process of reviewing and reforming the KORUS agreement.
“Our teams are going to get to work on these issues and they're going to sign a deal that's great for South Korea and great for the United States,” Trump said.
The Northwest Cherry Growers Association says changes to the KORUS deal could have a big impact on the Washington fruit industry, though it's uncertain what, specifically, the president has in mind.
Kyle Mathison, who voted for Trump, says he trusts that he'll be able to sell his fruit, no matter what comes of these new trade talks.
“You can't really run the country on what is best for the cherry grower, but it does help when they do,” he said with a chuckle.
Stemilt, nonetheless, expects a growing appetite for its fruit in Asia and Australia. The company is building a massive new distribution center in Wenatchee, which is expected to be fully operational next summer.
In addition, the Northwest Cherry Growers Association is partnering with video bloggers in Korea who tout the health benefits of Washington cherries and share recipes, attracting hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
The Mathisons aren't worrying too much about where their customers will come from in the coming years. They live by the seasons, and on their sweet, sunny, hillside, they've been doing just that for generations.
“I really truly believe that at the end of the day, when you have a good product, you're going to be able to sell it somewhere,” Mathison said.
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