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Early start to California cherry season gives retailers more holidays for promotion

The early cherry deal in the southern and central San Joaquin Valley of California will have an earlier start than usual this year, by as much as two weeks, not only giving producers more time to market the crop but also giving retailers at least one extra holiday for promotions.

"It is an unprecedented early year for us," Maurice Cameron, managing partner at Flavor Tree Fruit Co. LLC in Hanford, CA, said March 31. 09-CalCherries-Crop-Coral-cCalifornia Coral Champagne cherries. (Photo courtesy of GrowerDirect Marketing LLC)He expected to be harvesting by Easter, and to have good supplies at "somewhat reasonable prices" for Mother's Day, a holiday "we have never really had for cherries before."

The other side of the coin is that the earlier cherry varieties are expected to have a lighter crop than last year by anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent.

"We are doing our first estimate today," said Chris Zanobini, president and chief executive officer of Ag Association Management Services Inc. in Sacramento, CA, which administers the California Cherry Board, April 8. "I think the southern districts are pretty light. What I am seeing is that definitely the varieties that are predominant in the southern growing areas are much lighter than last year."

There is, however, "a lot of newer acreage that continues to come into production [which] may not have been factored in last year" but which will impact this year's numbers, he said. "We will have a crop. We will have a good-quality crop. We will have bigger fruit" because the set is lighter. But there will be fewer packages.

With regard to the Bing crop in the later district at the northern end of the valley, growers told The Produce News in early April that it was too early to make a prediction on what the crop would look like, but from all indications so far, it appeared to be a normal-size crop. It was not expected to be a bumper crop.

"I've had lots of comments on the Bings" from growers who say that any assessment they might give of the Bing crop at this point "is a guess," Zanobini said. "We had a very long, staggered bloom," with some parts of the tree blooming earlier than other parts of the tree. "People are trying to wait and see before they say too much."

Bings continue to be California's predominant cherry variety, Zanobini said. Some initial estimates put the 2014 Bing crop in the range of 2.5 million to 3 million packages, "but there are still a lot of questions out there to be answered."

Brooks, Tulare and Coral Champagne are the major early-season varieties grown in the state. Coral is a newer variety that has been growing rapidly in popularity and is being grown not only in the south but in the north as well. Among the other important varieties are Chelan, Rainier, Garnet and Sequoia. In all, California cherry producers grow some 50 different cherry varieties.

Jim Hansen, a salesman with Grower Direct Marketing LLC in Stockton, CA, said of the Coral variety that it is "quickly replacing the Brooks in the South Valley."

"The whole cherry deal looks to be 10 days earlier than last year," said Don Goforth, marketing director at Family Tree Farms Marketing LLC in Reedley, CA, April 1. He expected the company's earliest variety, Prelude, to start as early as April 20, followed by Brooks and Tulare around May 1 and shortly after by Coral Champagne and Royal Lynn. Bings, which are new to the company's program this year, he predicted to start in late May and continue to around mid-June.

"We are hearing a lot of stories about a very confused cherry tree," Goforth said. "While we did have adequate chill hours, in terms of total chill hours and duration, most of those chill hours came very early in the season" and there was a lot of warm weather through the winter. "So we had an early bloom." That combined with "the driest winter on record" as California's severe drought conditions continue, have had mixed effect on the cherry trees with some blocks having moderate sets and some blocks having "hardly anything at all."

Corals have a better set than Brooks or Tulares, according to Michael Jameson, export salesman for Morada Produce Co. LLC in Stockton. But overall, "you are looking at a below average crop" in the southern part of the valley, with peak production between May 5 and May 19.

Most people in the industry contribute this year's lighter crop to a "lack of chill portions during the winter months as well as lack of water."

As for "the Bing crop up north," he said April 1, "we will probably need another week before we can get a good handle on it ... but hopefully we will have a very good Bing crop." The peak on Bings should be from around May 27 to mid-June.

"We always like to have an answer as to why things are the way they are, and this year, the easy answer is lack of chill. But we've had years when we had low chill and had great crops. So it has to be a combination of things," said Grower Direct's Jim Hansen. "What that combination is for the guys at the university to figure out," but the reality this season is that "the crop is not full in the South Valley." That said, "year in and year out ... there are always more cherries packed in the South Valley" than pre-season estimates project.