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California cherry crop may have record-breaking potential

by Rand Green | April 20, 2011

One thing about cherries that virtually everyone seems to agree on — and a reality that is frequently mentioned by shippers during interviews — is the volatility of the crop, largely due to its sensitivity to weather. A late frost, an untimely hailstorm or rain at harvest time can unexpectedly reduce what might otherwise be a full crop.

But with that caveat, and even in spite of some effects from weather that have already affected cherry orchards in some locations, some shippers see a possibility for a record California crop this year.cherries

That is due primarily to two factors: First: since the bloom period, the weather as of early April has been generally favorable to cherry production in spite of some damage from earlier weather events. Second: new plantings of cherries coming into production could more than compensate for the fruit that was lost due to wet weather at bloom time.

California cherry production in 2010 was close to 9 million 18-pound carton equivalents, up from the previous year’s not-quite-record-setting 8.3 million tally. About two-thirds of that consisted of the Bing variety, grown primarily in the Stockton-Lodi-Linden area in the northern San Joaquin Valley. The rest is mainly early varieties such as Brooks, Tulare and the proprietary Sequoia, grown in the southern and central San Joaquin Valley from Arvin and Bakersfield to Fresno and Madera.

Plantings have been increasing in both Bings and early varieties, and in all areas, at an average rate of about 1,000 acres per year, according to Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the California Cherry Advisory Board in Lodi. Total acreage in 2009 was about 35,000 acres.

With the acreage currently planted and in production in the state, some shippers believe that the potential exists for an 11-million box crop, but they do not think that this potential will be realized this year due to weather-related reductions to the crop in some locations, particularly rain at bloom time. Some shippers do, however, see a possibility for a crop in the range of 10 million pounds this year, providing there are no significant additional weather issues between now and harvest, and particularly if the cherries can avoid heavy rains just before harvest when they are most vulnerable to splitting.

“We have a lot of weather to contend with” before the harvest starts in early May, Atomic Torosian, a managing partner at Crown Jewels Marketing LLC in Fresno, CA, said April 4. “That is the interesting part about the cherry deal. More so than any other fruit, because cherries can split so rapidly and you can lose 20, 30, 40, even 50 percent of your crop a day or two before you harvest. ... You hope you are going to be spared and not get any hail or heavy rain.”

With typical weather patterns in California, the greatest risk comes at the earliest part of the season.

“There is enough total acreage” of cherries currently planted in California to probably hit 11 million [boxes], Bryan Large, a partner at Scattaglia Growers & Shippers LLC in Traver, CA, said April 6. “But with any type of weather patterns we have had, I think it will fall ... around that 10-million mark. So I think it will be up but won’t reach its fullest potential of what is in the ground,” at least not for the current season.

While assessments vary, most shippers expect the harvest to start about a week later than normal but similar to last year, which was late, with a start date for Brooks in early May followed within a few days by Tulare. At least one major shipper, however, expects the Brooks to be on the early side. Volume for early varieties is expected to peak from around May 15 to May 25, according to some sources. Bings will get started about the end of May and were expected to be in promotable volumes for the first three weeks in June.

Don Goforth, marketing director for Family Tree Farms Marketing LLC in Reedley, CA, said that from what he is hearing, the crop is “about 20 percent off” from its potential, “but there are more cherries planted as an industry.” He expects similar volumes for the state to the 2010 crop. Quality looks good, he said April 5.

The “wild card,” according to Mr. Goforth, is that “there is about 1,000 acres of cherries in Kern County” planted three years ago that should be just coming into production. “I don’t have any intel on what that is yielding now. If they have a big crop,” then the state’s total volume will be “over historical numbers just because of new plantings coming in.”

“This year, I don’t think there will be a lot of volume for any Mother’s Day cherry promotions, just because we are starting late,” said Michael Jameson, proprietor of Tristone International in Fresno, the exclusive marketer for Morada Produce Co. LP in Stockton. “But I think there will be a lot of cherries from the early districts for the Memorial Day pull.”

The retailers are “fantastic” when it comes to working with California cherries and putting programs in place, Mr. Jameson said. Whether domestic or international, “they understand the cherry deal. They understand the perishability, and they understand that it is at the mercy of Mother Nature, so they try to get it as close to pull date as possible before they lock in price and volume and put the program together. But the retailers throughout the country and throughout the world have been very cooperative” in working with the shippers to put programs in place for the season.

(For more on California cherries, see the April 18, 2011, issue of The Produce News.)