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San Joaquin County cherries withstand ‘spotty’ rain losses

Issue Date: May 27, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

An unwelcome sequel to last year's disastrous late-season rains visited San Joaquin County cherry orchards in mid-May, but this time the damage appears far more limited.

"It's pretty spotty in terms of where there's damage, but it's not widespread," said Tim Pelican, the San Joaquin County agricultural commissioner.

Based on reports from packinghouses, Pelican estimated 10% to 15% of the crop may have been damaged.

Rain gauges around the area showed 0.19 to 0.52 inch fell during this year's May storms, according to Mohamed Nouri, a University of California Cooperative Extension orchard advisor in San Joaquin County, with cherries in the Escalon area being among the most affected.

Cherry farmers run their blowers through their orchards as soon as possible after a rain to wick away the water, he added.

Rain this late in the season can overload a cherry with moisture, causing the fruit to split. That renders the cherry unsalable except for processing.

"We're still a couple of weeks out from the end of the season," Pelican said. "It is a lighter yield but a higher quality."

San Joaquin County had 19,900 acres of cherries in 2018, yielding 21,900 tons of fruit worth $89.7 million, according to the county crop report. The same acreage had produced 61,800 tons worth $184.6 million in 2017. Pelican said the 2019 crop report was still being assembled but estimated the loss rate from last year's rains at 60%. Prior to the rain, the 2019 crop was expected to be a record 10.4 million boxes, as reported in Ag Alert® last year.

Cherry grower Jake Samuel of Linden said he was looking forward to a better 2020. Before the rain, "everything was going great," Samuel said. "Beautiful quality, great yields."

He'd already brought in early varieties and was starting work on the Bing harvest when the rains came May 17. Samuel used blowers on the trees between storms May 17 and May 18.

"We fared OK," he said. "Our packouts dropped probably 15-20% since then. I'm still waiting on a few of them to see what the actual damage is."

Packout, Samuel said, refers to "marketable yield"—the portion of the crop that passes muster at the packinghouse and can go to market. He said fruit changes once it reaches the packer and encounters more water; in addition, the electronic eyes in the packing shed can spot damage invisible to the naked eye.

Cherry growers also were blessed with what Samuel called "perfect cherry weather" after the rain.

"Cloudy, a little bit of wind, cool temperatures—65 degrees or so," he said.

Temperature plays an important role in the rate of cherry fruit cracking, Nouri said; more water is taken up when the temperature is warm following rain, causing the cherry to expand and split.

In anticipation of a heat wave predicted to begin around Memorial Day, Samuel said his next concern was finishing harvest. The rain cost him and his crews two days of work, and he anticipated working through the holiday weekend.

"There's fruit that's dark and ready to go and still firm, and it looks really great," Samuel said. "But as soon as the heat kicks in, it's going to speed up the senescence of the fruit, and it will start to decay."

Until recently, finding enough employees to finish the job had been an issue, with several cherry districts harvesting simultaneously. A week ago, Samuel said, he needed 60 to 80 people but had only 30; with other districts wrapping up, cherry pickers were coming to Linden and Lodi. Samuel said he expected to be done in a week to 10 days.

"Every grower's different; every situation is different," he said. "My personal situation might be different than the guy next to me. Cherries are finicky like that. So, not everybody's out of the woods, unfortunately, but it's a big night-and-day difference compared to last year."

No more rain is on the horizon for the San Joaquin County cherry-growing area. The National Weather Service forecast for this week shows plenty of sun, setting up a race to the finish line.

"We dodged a bullet," Pelican said. "I think we'll probably see stuff come off fairly fast once that hot weather hits."

Samuel said he's counting his blessings.

"Cherries can withstand a little bit of rain, and that's pretty much what we got this year," he said. "It's not a widespread, catastrophic wipeout like it was last season."

(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.




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