Cherry harvest recovers partway from a tough ’14


Issue Date: May 27, 2015
By Ching Lee
Eli Rios picks Bing cherries at J&A Solari, a farm in Linden. California farmers and packers agree this year's crop is excellent quality but light. It is also an early season, with the northern growing region expected to wrap up by the end of the month.
Photo/Ching Lee
San Joaquin County cherry farmer Nick Solari, left, and Jerry Colombini of Rivermaid Trading Co. examine Bing cherries that had been harvested and are being loaded to the packinghouse.
Photo/Ching Lee
Bing remains the state’s leading variety and is one of the last cherries to be harvested.
Photo/Ching Lee

After a disastrous crop last year, some California cherry farmers say they are having a better harvest this year, but the state's overall crop remains very light.

"First of all, any crop would be better than last year's," said Joe Grant, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in San Joaquin County.

As with last year, lack of winter chilling reduced fruit set, particularly in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where growers had "a very disappointing harvest," he noted. Warm temperatures during bloom also may have contributed to poor fruit set, he added.

Some orchards in the northern growing district of Lodi, Linden and Stockton—where most of the state's cherries are grown—did manage to produce a decent crop, Grant said, but others in the same region were also on the light side.

The California Cherry Board estimates the state will produce 5.7 million 18-pound boxes of cherries this year, down from 8 million to 10 million boxes in more-normal years, said Nick Matteis, a board spokesman. Last year's production was less than a third of a normal crop, he noted.

"We've had a couple of really warm winter spells that just don't agree with cherries, with last year particularly bad," Matteis said. "When you don't have an abundance of chilling portions, that's when your volumes suffer."

Jerry Colombini, a field representative for Rivermaid Trading Co., a grower-shipper-packer based in Lodi, said the company is harvesting twice as much volume as it did last year, even though "we didn't do much last year." But he described fruit quality as "outstanding—probably some of the very best fruit we've packed in our shed in a long time."

It has also been a very early season for cherries, said Tom Gotelli, who manages Stockton-based O-G Packing, which has production in California's northern and southern districts, and in Washington.

He noted the state's harvest started about 10 days earlier than last year, which was also an early year. Many orchards in the southern district started harvest in mid-April and finished about two weeks ago, while the northern district will wind down by the end of this week.

California cherry season typically extends from mid-May through June, according to the Cherry Board.

For Kern County cherry farmer Steve Murray, having less fruit made it more difficult to attract pickers, many of whom are coming off of citrus harvest or working in vineyards. He said while crews will typically leave those fields to pick cherries during peak season, they tend to return to their other jobs "when the picking gets thin."

Colombini said he was also concerned there would be a labor shortage for the state's cherry harvest because of competition from Washington, but rain hurt some of its early crop, so more workers came to pick in California than were expected.

He noted that wider use of treatments such as Dormex, or hydrogen cyanamide, and CAN-17, or calcium ammonium nitrate—both of which are applied to compensate for low chilling and to advance bud break—may have pushed up the entire cherry season.

Grant said growers who used those treatments "seem to have done a little bit better" in setting fruit. Kern County experienced unseasonably high temperatures during cherry bloom, Murray said, and those who used Dormex or CAN-17 and were able to bloom during a cooler window had a better chance of setting fruit than those whose trees bloomed during the heat.

Murray also noted there were more spurs and doubles—especially in the Brooks and Tulare varieties—in what little fruit he produced. But fruit that made export quality was sweet and sized well, he added.

Grant said spurs and doubles are caused by hot summer temperatures during the month-long period when flowers that become next year's crop begin to develop their pistils. Some varieties are more susceptible than others, he noted.

While the Bing cherry remains the state's dominant variety, it is also one of the last cherries to be harvested. Grant said growers in the northern district are beginning to move away from Bings by replanting early-ripening varieties such as Royal Hazel and Royal Tioga. Other, older early varieties such as Chelans and Corals have been increasing in acreage for years, he noted, as growers look to finish earlier and tap into the more lucrative early season. Getting into the market early also avoids price crashes when Washington and Oregon begin selling their cherries, he added.

Being first on the market, growers in the Fresno-Arvin-Bakersfield growing areas benefit from higher prices, but Grant said their yields are typically much lower than the northern district. Southern San Joaquin Valley growers are figuring out better varieties for their region, he said, noting that Brooks and Tulare have not performed well in recent years.

Murray said he has ordered about 2,200 new trees for next year and plans to transition about 50 acres of his Tulare cherries to Coral or newer varieties that are more forgiving during low-chill years.

Other growers in Kern County also are removing their Brooks and Tulare, he said, but some of them are replacing those cherries with mandarins, almonds and pistachios. With water quality declining in the southern San Joaquin Valley, he said growers are increasingly turning to pistachios because the trees can tolerate more salinity.

"Some growers have had problems for a couple of years and decided to move on to nuts that have a history of making quite a bit of money lately," Murray said.

But Gotelli said a lot of cherry trees in the southern district have also been lost due to significant water cutbacks.

"We're going to be drilling some wells, so our ranches will be fine," he said. "But there are people who can't afford wells or they won't be able to get their wells in time. There are orchards that are dying and there are row crops that are not being replanted."

Despite the smaller crop this year, Colombini said cherry prices have stayed high. And with the earlier season, the state avoided much of the overlap with the Pacific Northwest crop.

"We're going to finish up and then they're going to get started," he said. "I just think everything is lining up. It would've been nice if we could have had more fruit, but you can't have everything."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.