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Cherry Growers Report Encouraging Start

photo of cherry branches

Barring any future adverse weather such as rain and hail, the state's cherry season is off to a good start, with quality fruit and decent volumes, according to California growers and packers.

Harvest has been ramping up in the southern and central San Joaquin Valley, which provides the market with much of the early-season fruit. A spike in temperatures last week accelerated fruit ripening, allowing more cherries to be picked.

Tulare County grower Doug Phillips, who also runs a shipping and packing operation in Visalia, said being able to pick fruit earlier allows him to get in on the Mother's Day market, as major retailers promote cherries ahead of the May 14 holiday.

"We command a premium because we're earlier," he said. "But there's a lot of cherries out there. Hopefully, (prices) will hold stable and we can get this stuff picked and packed and sold for a decent amount of returns. We're optimistic at this point."

Growers in the southern growing district take advantage of the more-lucrative early market with varieties such as the Brooks, Coral and Tulare, all of which ripen before the Bing, still the leading cherry variety in the state.

With volumes picking up this week, Mike Jameson, director of sales and marketing for Morada Produce, a grower, shipper and packer based in Stockton, said he expects prices will begin to drop "a little bit," noting that crops are being harvested from Kern County to as far north as Stanislaus County.

"This year, with an anticipated good crop on trees in all districts, I anticipate the market will come off quicker than we've seen in the past, to find a level that moves the product at retail," he said.

Growers reported minor splitting in some of the early-harvested cherries, due to late April rains. But with the new optic sorters that larger packers are now using, Jameson said the final packed product should be "very nice."

Compared to the last three years, harvest this year has been "pretty slow going," due to cooler, rainy weather, said Matt Nowak, who markets cherries for Stockton-based Grower Direct Marketing. Not only does the crop look "fantastic," he said, but it also appears to be one of the larger ones the state has seen in several years.

Growers have struggled in recent years with a lack of winter chilling that results in poor fruit set. Rain during bloom also can devastate yields. Despite the record rainfall this year, growers agreed their crops appear to have come through the soggy spring unscathed. The California Cherry Board estimated the crop at 8.5 million 18-pound packs, up significantly from last year.

"I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of fruit we've set this year," Phillips said.

The heavier volumes mean there will be "a lot of opportunity" for West Coast retailers to promote cherries ahead of Mother's Day, Nowak said. The bulk of the crop will come off later this month, he added, when the northern district of Linden, Lodi and Stockton begins harvesting Bings. That is also when retailers traditionally roll out pre-Memorial Day promotions.

The later harvest "was a blessing" for Keith Wilson, owner of Dinuba-based King Fresh Produce, which has fruit coming from as far south as Kern County to as far north as Madera County.

During the last several years of drought, he was packing fruit as early as April 20, but this year, harvest started on May 1. Had he started earlier, he said, his crop would have been hit with late April rains when it was most sensitive to damage. Rain tends to split the skins of cherries when they're ripe, but not so much when they're still green. Wilson said he suffered about 5 percent damage in some of his earliest cherry blocks.

"The quality is very good right now," he said. "The pack-outs are higher than we've had in the past two years."

Packers and marketers agreed there should not be a significant overlap between the California crop and what's coming from the northwestern growing district of Washington and Oregon, which is also experiencing cooler weather that's delaying harvest.

Nowak said California growers will probably finish their season around June 12, while the Northwest will begin around June 8, with not much initial volume, making for a smooth transition. This prevents a price crash when the different growing regions inundate the market at the same time.

Growers also reported few problems with employee availability this time in the season.

Wilson said harvest for other high-labor crops such as blueberries and tree fruit also got pushed back, so there's less competition for employees. Phillips said he kept his crews busy through most of the winter and spring thinning and pruning other tree crops so that they would be available going into the cherry season.

"Going forward, (labor) is still a concern," he said. "So many blueberries have been planted down this way. Between blueberries and a fairly decent cherry crop, it's going to take a lot of people."

The southern and central districts have added more cherry acres in recent years, with introduction of newer varieties that can better tolerate the region's higher temperatures. Plantings of the Coral, in particular, have been rising, even in the northern district where Bings dominate.

"Bing is still king, but the Coral variety is gaining momentum," Nowak said. "It's showing to be a resilient variety that can handle the heat in California better than some of these other early varieties. It's become very popular for growers that are looking to grow a more-consistent crop. And it's enabled the industry to have more consistent supplies from the beginning of the season all the way to the end with good-quality cherries."

California shipments of Coral, at 1.39 million packs, exceeded shipments of Bing, at 1.25 million packs, in 2016, according to the cherry board. The state shipped a total of 5.11 million packs last year, down from 5.89 million in 2015.

Fred Podesta, who grows Bing and Coral varieties in Linden, said the larger Coral shipments last year were "probably weather-related," adding that the Bing is still the "mainstay" variety in terms of acreage.

As of last week, he had not started harvest but expected to begin picking Bings between May 15 and May 20.

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