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Lighter volume expected on early varieties, but Bing crop appears similar to last year

by Rand Green | April 15, 2009
The California cherry season is expected to get underway this year about April 24 with the earliest varieties, Brooks and Sequoia, followed shortly by Tulare.

From then through most of the month of April, those and other early varieties grown in the southern half of the San Joaquin Valley -- basically from Arvin, Maricopa and Bakersfield north to Fresno and Madera -- will constitute the first half of the season.

Those varieties will be followed by Bings in the northern district around Linden, Stockton and Lodi, beginning at the end of May and rising to peak production during the first three weeks of June. Bings constitute typically about two-thirds of the California cherry crop.

Growers in the state's southern cherry-growing districts expect a lighter crop than in 2009 when the early varieties totaled a record 3.5 million packages (18-pound equivalent). Due to some freeze damage, particularly in low-lying areas, and several other factors, some industry leaders expect the volume in the south this year to be between 2 million and 2.5 million packages.

However, the Bing crop in the north is expected to be similar to last year, with around 5 million packages.

"The outlook looks real good," said Jim Culbertson, manager of the California Cherry Advisory Board in Lodi. The trees experienced good winter chill conditions, and in general "our whole weather pattern during bloom period was good throughout the state."

He noted, however, that "with cherries, we've got a long ways to go," as weather conditions before harvest, and in particular heavy rain during the final days before harvest, could alter the projected numbers as well as the starting dates.

The crop appears to be a little more spread out than last year, with the Bings possibly starting a little later, according to Mr. Culbertson. "Mother Nature will play the cards, but we are looking at maybe a little bit of a lull" between the peak of harvest on the early varieties and the peak production period for Bings.

Bing volume will not come on early enough for Memorial Day promotions, so Tulares and other earlier varieties from the southern district will be the main varieties available for Memorial Day ads. The early varieties should also be in the market for Mother's Day.

Cherry acreage continues to increase in California, Mr. Culbertson said. That is occurring "everywhere in the valley, both northern and southern," although the majority of the gains have come with early varieties in the south. Overall, there has been a "fairly steady gain of about 1,000 acres a year," he said.

"I think ... that the early district on Brooks and Tulares is significantly lighter per acre than we saw a year ago," said Mike Jameson, proprietor of Tristone International, sales agent for Morada Produce Co. LP in Linden, CA. "There will be some new acres coming into production that did not produce cherries last season, but there will still be a significant decrease in the production of Brooks and Tulares this year compared to last year."

Even so, there will be "plenty" of cherries, he stated. "The crop is definitely a promotable crop for retailers."

Mr. Jameson expected to see peak production on Brooks and Tulare varieties from around May 6 to May 20.

The Chelan and Garnet varieties appear to have nice crops, he said. "On Bings, I think you will probably see a crop comparable to last year."

Maurice (Mo) Cameron, sales manager for Trinity Fruit Sales Co. in Fresno, CA, said April 7 that he expected "very similar timing to last year's crop" for "the industry as a whole," with volume from Fresno County south "probably somewhat lighter" than last year's heavy crop, but what would still be considered "a full crop."

Statewide, he estimated 7 million to 7.5 million boxes, which would not be "the record crop it was last year" but still a "good size crop." There will be "no shortage," he stated.

Crown Jewels Marketing LLC in Fresno has young acreage coming into heavier production, but yields will be lower than last year due to wind and freeze damage. "I think overall we are looking at a crop that is similar in size to last year," said Atomic Torosian, a managing partner with the company. Some 80 percent of the company's volume consists of early varieties.

"At this point, the Bing crop in the north looks to be very close to last year," Bryan Large, a partner at Scattaglia Growers & Shippers LLC in Traver, CA, said April 8. "They are talking around 5 million [packages] in the northern district" compared to 5.2 million last year.

"The talks are" that the southern district, which produced about 3.5 million packages of cherries last year, may have closer to 2 million packages this year, he said.

Mr. Cameron put the projection for the southern district just a bit higher. "We might have 2.5 million," he said.

(For more on the California cherry deal, see the April 20 issue of The Produce News.)