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California cherry crop could be similar in volume to last year

by Rand Green | April 14, 2010
At 8.3 million cartons, the 2009 California sweet cherry crop was the second largest on record, according to Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the California Cherry Advisory Board in Lodi, CA. Bings accounted for about 5.6 million cartons, with Brooks and Tulares, the two major early varieties, constituting most of the balance, although a number of other varieties are grown as well.

There are no official estimates yet for the 2010 crop, but after a heavy set last year, the trees may reasonably be expected to carry a lighter load this year. However, new cherry orchards have been planted over the last several years in most of the major producing areas in the state, and with young trees coming into production, the new acreage may compensate for any lighter sets there may be on some of the older orchards.

Crop totals of about 8.3 million cartons "are going to become more the norm," Mr. Culbertson said. "While we are pushing records, … these are numbers we are going to consistently see."

Even with the new acreage, crop volume could decline a little from last year. But on the other hand, "I think last year's number is achievable," he said.

Although the start of the harvest was still some weeks away when The Produce News talked to Mr. Culbertson April 5, everything was looking "real good" so far for the new crop. The bloom period in the southern districts for early cherry varieties had passed some weeks ago, and the fruit was set. In the northern blocks, the bloom period had just "finished about a week-and- a-half ago, for the most part," so it was still too early to tell, but "things look strong at this point," he said.

"Conditions in all the areas are pretty favorable," he continued. "We definitely have fruit on the trees, and it looks like it is in good quantity."

The first cherries of the season, early varieties from the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, were expected to start moving in small numbers around the last week of April, with volume picking up during the first two weeks of May, he said.

Bing cherries in the northern district are "probably on the late side" and are not likely to make it to market for Memorial Day, Mr. Culbertson said. However, it appeared that the early varieties may be in better production for Memorial Day than was the case last year, when there was "a little bit of a dip in production" during the Memorial Day pull. "I think there may have been a little disappointment on the side of retailers on trying to cover Memorial Day activity" last year, he said. But "I think that situation is going to be a little bit better this year."

Maurice (Mo) Cameron, a partner in the newly formed Flavor Tree Fruit Co. LLC in Hanford, CA, is expecting strong demand for cherries on the domestic market this year.

"The pulse that I am getting this year is phenomenally different from last year," he said. "Last year, the season opened up and everybody talked that the economy was in the dumpster and everybody wanted to set prices on cherries that had to be cheap," thinking they would be "unable to retail the cherries for $2.99 a pound."

This year, buyers "realize the consumer is willing to buy [the fruit] and pay for it," and there is "a lot of excitement" about starting the season because cherries are "a profitable item for them."

"The demand is high," said Dave Parker, marketing director at SGS in Traver, CA. "There has been a strong expression of interest in getting to these cherries as early as possible after a winter season that was difficult for retailers." The outlook is "really optimistic," he said.

There is "a good set overall" throughout the state, "so industry volume in California should be up," Mr. Parker said.

"The domestic market continues to get stronger and stronger for California cherries," said Michael Jameson, proprietor of Tristone International in Fresno, CA, which sells the cherry deal for Morada Produce Co. LP in Stockton, CA. "I think that is only going to continue to get better."

(For more on California cherries, see the April 19, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)