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California cherries seeing strong movement and good volume

by Rand Green | May 27, 2010
The early California cherry season has been characterized by good volumes of high-quality fruit and strong demand, both domestically and in export markets.

Customers "are pretty much taking [the cherries] as fast as we can pack them," Maurice (Mo) Cameron, managing partner of Flavor Tree Fruit Co. LLC in Hanford, CA, which markets fruit for Warmerdam Packing LLC, said in a May 26 interview with The Produce News.

Prices had “moderated quite a bit to the $30 to $40 price range, which I think is the perfect pricing for the domestic retail trade,” he said. Prices had been “in the $50 to $60 range for a while. We were pushing a lot of ad business out, even in the $50 range.”

Cherry prices are largely dependent upon size, Mr. Cameron said. “For big sizes at these moderate prices, demand exceeds supply.”

The crop is running a little later than normal due to a cool spring. But the cool weather has allowed the cherries “to size up and gain some sugar,” he said. “We have a very nice product. We have been fortunate that we haven't had really hot weather to challenge us as far as condition goes.”

There has also been rain. In fact, the Central Valley, where most of California’s early-season cherry varieties are grown, has experienced a rainstorm almost every week over the last month or so, which is unusual for the time of year. And rain at or near harvest time can be a serious problem for cherries, often causing them to split.

But this year, “we didn’t see a huge amount of damage. It has not been severe,” Mr. Cameron said. “We have been very lucky,” partly because of the maturity level of the cherries at the time the rains came and partly because the rains were generally followed by cool, breezy weather that dried the cherries before significant damage occurred.

“They do fly helicopters over the fields to create wind to get the water off of the cherries,” Bill Warmerdam, a founder of Warmerdam Packing, commented. “The wind we had after the rains dried the cherries better than any helicopter could have,” Mr. Cameron said.

“We are in a period of very good volume out of the central part of the valley,” said Dave Parker, marketing director at Scattaglia Growers & Shippers LLC in Traver, CA. “We made it known [to buyers] that this volume was coming … and movement is taking us through this period in pretty good fashion so far.”

Because of the unusual weather, it has not been an easy year to define a market or to predict volumes, noted Don Goforth, marketing director for Family Tree Farms in Reedley, CA. It has been “very difficult to get a clear picture of the supply side of supply side economics. Is it tight? Is it long? Did rain affect one guy and not another? It all depends on little pockets in the valley. But the bottom line is there is a lot of action right now, and the cherry guys, including myself, are crazy busy today,” he said May 26.

Mr. Goforth added, “The pricing adjusted over the weekend, so now we are down to pricing that retailers can hit realistically in the stores, and it is moving a lot of cherries. I would call it demand exceeds — or at least demand meets — supply, at lower prices than last week.”

Mr. Goforth concurred that current pricing was in “the $30 to $40 range depending on size and also prior commitments. There is some ad pricing out there that is definitely playing into the market as well.”

“Movement has been good so far,“ Michael Jameson, proprietor of Tristone International in Fresno, CA, exclusive sales agent for cherries for Morada Produce Co. LP in Stockton, CA, said May 26. “We have had really good volume early on and good movement to all markets domestically as well as around the world. Quality has been outstanding. This cool weather that we have had has allowed the fruit to stay on the tree longer and get better size than we have historically seen [on the early cherries]. It is one of the best- quality crops I have seen [for those varieties].”

The harvest has been running a week to 10 days later than usual “because of the cool weather,” he said. And even though there has also been rain, “it was breezy after the rain [which] allowed the fruit to dry off, so there was minimal damage” to the early fruit.

Regarding market prices, Mr. Jameson said that as volumes start to increase, particularly with the Bing season approaching, “you have an adjustment in the market, and it has done its normal transition downward to find a level that moves the fruit to all markets.”

The market remains “very solid” with “good prices for fruit and excellent movement,” Mr. Jameson said. “There are a lot of retailers pushing to promote cherries in the early part of June, which is fantastic for the Bings. The amount of inquiries for pricing for the ads for domestic retailers this year for the first two weeks of June is a lot better than we had a year ago.”

Prices are “getting to a level now where retailers can promote a lot of cherries, and that is what we need” with “a nice crop of Bings” about to come onto the market, he said.