Early regions expect improved cherry crops

Issue Date: May 1, 2013
By Ching Lee
Cherry harvest has started for Kern County farmer Steve Murray and others in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Murray says production has been good this year, but growers in the northern valley say their production is down.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
These 8-year-old cherry trees, grown in a greenhouse at O-G Packing in Stockton, were blooming in mid-February this year. The company has been developing hothouse cherries for nearly 10 years and shipped small volumes of the fruit to various offshore markets in April ahead of California’s typical cherry season.
Photo/ O-G Packing

Cherry harvest season has kicked off in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and growers say they are seeing a heavier crop coming from their region this year than growers to the north.

The situation was reversed last year, when growers in the southern district experienced a "total crop failure," while northern growers supplied 75 percent of the total state crop, said Jim Hanson, who markets cherries for Grower Direct Marketing in Stockton.

Even though most California cherries are grown in the northern San Joaquin Valley, Hanson said he expects 60 percent of the state's volume this year will come from the south state.

"This year it looks like it's going to be a pretty good production year," said Kern County cherry farmer Steve Murray, who markets most of his fruit wholesale but also via U-pick, farmers markets and roadside stands. "The quality looks excellent."

He started harvesting last week—an early, low-chill variety called Royal K. This week, he planned to begin picking the Brooks and Sequoia varieties.

With temperatures reaching into the 90s during the last two weeks, Murray said there is concern that harvest will be more compressed, with growers in the central San Joaquin Valley picking close to the same time as those in the Bakersfield area.

Quicker-ripening cherries could lead to smaller sizing and softer fruit, Murray said, noting that some growers in his region are actually dropping fruit and more are using the plant-growth regulator gibberellic acid to help increase fruit size and maintain its firmness.

"There's also more competition in the markets, with everybody's crop coming on," he said.

Because cherries from the southern district are first on the market, they usually command a higher price. But Murray said he doesn't think those prices "will hold very long."

"Usually when you have a year where there's more early fruit, we'll probably see more competition in the direct markets, whereas last year there was less competition because prices were so high that people were satisfied with the wholesale prices they were getting," he said.

One advantage of the warmer weather, Murray noted, is that growers may see less pressure from the spotted-wing drosophila, a fruit fly that attacks cherries and other fruits. The flies are most active at 68 degrees, with activity reduced at temperatures above 86 degrees, according to the University of California.

Meanwhile, O-G Packing, a grower, packer and shipper based in Stockton, got a head start on the season this year with its greenhouse-grown cherries, which the company began harvesting in mid-April. Growers in the northern district typically do not start harvest until about mid-May.

Hanson of Grower Direct, which markets cherries for O-G Packing, said research and development on the hothouse cherries have been ongoing for nearly 10 years, with good crops the last two years. The idea, he said, is to fill a gap in the market during April, before fruit from the southern valley is available.

"We want to be out by the third week of April," Hanson said of the greenhouse cherries. "As we dial this in, what we found is that on a normal year, we'll be able to have cherries in early April."

So far, all of those cherries have gone to overseas markets, including South America, Russia, Europe and certain spots of the Pacific Rim, such as Japan, he said. As the program expands, Hanson said he expects the company will begin offering the greenhouse cherries to high-end U.S. retailers as well.

"There's a huge market for them, but it's just a matter of getting the volume," he said, noting the cherries are currently marketed in small shipments of five-pound boxes. "The cost of the cherries is certainly going to prohibit some from purchasing it. You're not going to sell them to everybody."

Steve Southwick, pomologist for O-G Packing, said the greenhouse project has been through much trial and error, dealing with increased pest and disease pressure as well as yield and quality issues. And while the cherries are sheltered from the spring rains that growers dread every year, the fruit is not necessarily invincible to cracking, he said.

"You can have lots of cracking inside, too, if you don't control the conditions properly," Southwick said. "It's not from free moisture falling, but you can have too much humidity."

As for the lighter crop in the northern district, Joe Grant, a UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor, said he is unclear about the reason, as weather at bloom "was really quite good," even though it was on the warm side. He noted he has heard "fairly consistently" that the crop in the north state this year is "moderate at best and light in many orchards," but they should have excellent fruit size.

Larelle Miller, who markets cherries for Linden-based Morada Produce, a grower, packer and shipper with cherries throughout the state's growing regions, said some North State growers report their crop is as much as 40 percent lighter than last year. She and Hanson both cited early state production estimates ranging from 8 million to 8.5 million 18-pound boxes, which is close to last year's production.

Miller said there should be enough California cherries for domestic and foreign markets.

"We think we should have good market conditions all the way through," she said.

With labor costs continuing to rise, Hanson said three California cherry packing facilities—O-G Packing, Morada Produce and A. Sambado & Sons in Linden—have installed new, high-tech equipment in their packing lines this year that uses optic technology to sort the fruit for color, size and defects.

"You're taking human hands off the fruit," he said. "So it's a big change for us. We all feel it's going to really revolutionize the cherry business."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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

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