May rains hit cherries, threaten other crops


Issue Date: May 22, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Rain can cause ripening cherries to swell and split, as seen in this San Joaquin County orchard. California cherry farmers had been expecting a large crop—before mid-May storms swept through cherry-growing regions in the Central Valley.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
San Joaquin County cherry farmer Jake Samuel uses a sprayer to blow air onto cherry trees, in an effort to dry the fruit after rainstorms threatened developing cherries during the past weekend.
Photo/Jake Samuel

California was cruising for a bumper cherry crop this spring. Then the state's latest atmospheric river showed up.

Growers in San Joaquin County said it's too soon to know how much of a hit the crop will take. Rain can cause cherries to split down the side or along the stem, rendering them unsalable except for processing.

As Ag Alert® reported earlier this month, California cherry farmers were expecting to ship an estimated 10.5 million boxes, according to Lodi grower-packer-shipper Rivermaid Trading Co.

"It's kind of hard to say exactly what's going to happen at this point," cherry farmer Jake Samuel of Linden said, noting that some people are still picking early varieties, such as Corals and Tulares.

"The Bing crop is kind of the one that's up in the air," Samuel said. "No one's really certain what the extent of that damage is."

That likely won't be known until the middle or end of this week, he added. He had originally planned to start harvest around May 17 but instead, Samuel spent the weekend walking his orchards, keeping an eye on the still-developing fruit.

The Bings in Samuel's orchards were mainly yellow-rose in color last week, and some were still in the green-to-yellow phase, he said.

"Those may be OK, but as they kind of get to that yellow color, they're really hard and firm, and the cherry just can't absorb that much more water because it's turning the water into sugars," Samuel said. "As it turns to sugars, it turns that color red. It wants to just blow out, because it doesn't have the room for that excess water."

If the rain had happened perhaps two weeks earlier, he said, "we'd be in a fine state. But where it's sitting at right now, this close to harvest, it makes it very difficult to try to make some judgments on harvesting or not."

In Lodi, grower Joe Valente said the weather following the rain would be just as crucial.

"If it's hot and humid, it will tend to crack more," Valente said. "If it's cool and windy, you'll have some damage but maybe not as much."

As of Monday, the picture was still emerging.

"People are still trying to evaluate what's going on," he said. "I'm sure there's damage out there. How much of it is hard to predict."

Valente said packing sheds are in a wait-and-see mode.

"Sometimes you can even pick them, and you put them in the box and they look OK, and then once they start shipping them, they break down," he said. "It's a risk you've got to be cautious of."

Samuel said his next step would be to evaluate markets and take note of what the packers are doing.

"Have faith in your shed, and then have faith in your insurance adjuster, too, and your own background knowledge on everything," he said.

In the Sacramento Valley, the persistent storms hampered the region's rice, almond and walnut growers, according to Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau.

Rice farmers were already dealing with fields taking longer than normal to dry out after a wet winter, she noted.

"This unexpected moisture in May is just prolonging the spring planting for the rice growers," Cecil said. "They're still working at it, but it's definitely causing a little bit of headache."

Also causing worry: storms last Sunday brought hail to the region.

"That is very concerning for our nut crops," Cecil said. "The young nuts are on the tree, and hail can be super damaging."

Most everyone now is waiting for things to dry out, she said.

"Tree nut farmers are evaluating their trees in terms of health and their crops for any kind of damage right now," Cecil said. "Wet, cold weather is not ideal in May, of course, but this isn't the first time and it won't be the last."

Samuel said he was trying to stay positive.

"I don't want to be a Debbie Downer and make it sound like it's all wiped out, but it's not a very positive outlook at this point," he said. "I know there's still going to be a lot of growers out there trying to give it their best, including myself.

"Cherry farmers are pretty resilient, and we'll try again," Samuel said. "If it's not this year, we'll try again next year."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.