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Cherry harvest reaches peak, with larger crop anticipated

Issue Date: May 26, 2021
By Ching Lee
In this file photo, an employee from Tesch Family Farms in Kern County picks cherries from low-profile trees. Farmer Greg Tesch says he finished his 2021 harvest in early May.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

Peak season for California cherries is here, and farmers say dry, sunny weather this spring has brought a quality crop that's also expected to be one of the largest they've produced in several years.

Initially estimated at 9.47 million 18-pound boxes, the 2021 California cherry crop held the potential to beat the banner year of 2017, when farmers harvested a record 9.55 million boxes—but people in the business say heat and wind damage earlier in the season may have affected fruit size and packouts.

Now, the crop should at least top 8 million boxes, said Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Cherry Board. That would be up from the 6.58 million boxes packed last year—and higher than the previous two years. Peak harvest should continue through June 6.

In recent years, the number of marketable cherries has been reduced by lack of winter chilling, which leads to poor fruit set, and timing of late-spring rains, which could cause cherries to split. But this year, farmers say growing and picking conditions have been largely favorable.

"The weather now is absolutely perfect," Zanobini said.

The state maintains about 40,000 acres of cherries, according to the cherry board. The Stockton-Linden-Lodi district, where the traditional Bing cherry is grown, accounts for about 60% of the crop. The southern San Joaquin Valley produces about 35%, and about 5% comes from the Gilroy-Hollister area.

Though the Bing cherry has been the predominant variety in the state, production of the Coral Champagne has surpassed Bing in three of the last five years. Bing is expected to be No. 1 again this year, Zanobini said, but Corals will be the main variety being marketed during the Memorial Day holiday.

Because the Coral harvests earlier than the Bing, increased plantings of the variety have moved up timing of peak California cherry season, San Joaquin County grower Jeff Colombini said, and Nick Lucich, a sales and marketing representative for Delta Packing Co. in Lodi, said the shift to more Corals has also led to more California cherries being shipped during the month of May than in June.

One big reason farmers are planting more Corals, Colombini said, is because the trees require "much less winter chill."

"In low-chill years, we tend to have smaller crops in Bings, whereas Coral Champagne seems to produce consistently good crops year in, year out," he said.

Harvest in the northern district has been ramping up, Colombini said, with farmers picking Coral and Chelan, another earlier-maturing variety. The small volumes he has been picking during the last two weeks benefited from the "beautiful weather," which made for a "great quality cherry" without any problems of rot or fungal diseases that could plague growers during wet springs, he said. The number of sunny days in May has also allowed the fruit to sweeten properly, he added.

With about a quarter of the crop picked as of last week, Lucich said harvest started slowly due to mostly cooler temperatures in April, with the fruit taking its time coloring and sweetening. In more typical years, full production usually arrives around May 10, he noted.

"Every retailer wants cherries for Mother's Day. It really wasn't there this year," Lucich said. "But there's going to be a very good supply of red cherries for the Memorial Day pull."

Despite the larger crop this year, Colombini said he doesn't think farmers will see a big crash in market prices, because of the crop's "exceptional quality," which will drive repeat purchasing.

Lucich agreed. He said even though sizing on cherries has been "smaller than we like," demand in both domestic and export markets has been "very good," which is creating "a very healthy market right now."

"Shoppers are buying cherries and then coming back for more," he added.

An estimated 25% of the California crop will go to export markets this year, up slightly from 23% last year, according to the cherry board. Canada, Korea and Japan have been the biggest buyers.

Because cherries are sold mainly via retail market channels, Zanobini said the crop did not experience the demand fluctuations that affected other commodities when food service shut down during the pandemic.

He noted cherries were the "first big crop" to harvest during the initial pandemic lockdowns last year, and credited farmers, shippers and packers for "a phenomenal job of putting in very good safety measures," most of which remain in place. In addition to continued testing for the coronavirus at work sites, he said a number of packing sheds have hosted clinics that allowed several thousand people to be vaccinated.

"There's been a huge effort done by the cherry industry to protect their workers," Zanobini said.

Kern County farmer Greg Tesch said he felt "really lucky" for more favorable weather this year when the fruit was ripening, after rain last year damaged some of his cherries.

Tesch, who finished cherry harvest in early May, described his yield as slightly above average and fruit quality as below average, due to the number of doubles and spurs, which are influenced by heat stress during bud initiation. Bud formation for the 2022 crop started in mid-March, when "we had plenty of heat stress this year already," he said, adding that he thinks these quality issues could persist for next year's crop.

Though the early market for cherries remains "good," he said, the price did slip "a little below where we would like to see it," especially so early in the season.

Tesch also markets some cherries at farmers markets, and he said at least in the year-round Bakersfield farmers market in which he participates, attendance has been down. Though people who bought cherries "loved" them, he said, "we could've sold double if we'd had a normal crowd."

His bigger concern now relates to water availability for his orchards and other crops, Tesch said. With groundwater continuing to drop, he said none of his neighbors has been willing to sell him water. On one property that he farms, the landowner "doesn't want me to drop a well," he said, and on another farm that receives its supply from the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, he's already paying three times more for his water.

(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.




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