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Cherry Growers Hope for a Comeback Year

California cherry farmers appear on track to harvest one of their largest crops in recent years, a sharp contrast from a year ago, when a late freeze and other weather-related troubles delivered one of their smallest cherry crops.

Growers and marketers note, however, that harvest is just beginning in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley with the earliest varieties, including Royal Tioga, Royal Hazel and Royal Lynn, and that major weather events such as rain could still sour their season.

For now, though, people in the cherry business agree this year's production seems on par with or better than 2017, when they packed nearly 9.6 million 18-pound boxes, the highest in the last 10 years, according to the California Cherry Board. Rivermaid Trading Co., a grower-shipper-packer in Lodi, estimated the 2019 cherry crop at about 10.5 million boxes.

"It's a record crop," said Kyle Persky, sales manager for Rivermaid.

The firm reported the increased crop will come mainly during the first half of the season and relates in part to higher acreage and yield in Coral Champagne, an earlier-ripening variety that grows well in the state's southern and northern growing districts. Rivermaid also reported seeing a "relatively stronger" crop in the Tulare variety.

With a bigger crop, growers see smaller fruit sizes, which they are trying to remedy by thinning their trees and applying the plant hormone gibberellic acid to help maximize fruit size and firmness—qualities that export markets demand, Persky said. Growers will be rewarded in price for bigger fruit, he added, while those who "hung a lot of fruit that's not going to size" will have a challenge marketing it.

"With the thinning, it should be a good, marketable crop for us," said Tom Gotelli, who manages Stockton-based OG Packing, which operates farms in the southern and northern districts.

Ralph Casciaro, who markets cherries for King Fresh Produce in Dinuba, said he expects cherry sizes will be "all over the board," with plenty of 11-row cherries and smaller, though he said he hopes there will be a "fair amount" of nine-and-a-half-row and larger. "Row" refers to the number of cherries that could fit in a row inside a box, with smaller numbers indicating larger-sized cherries.

Kern County grower Steve Murray said he's done some spot-thinning in his orchards and "gib" applications, but he noted growers in the southern valley tend not to use much gibberellic acid because it delays harvest by several days. Southern-district growers aim to sell their crops early when there are no cherries on the market and prices are high, he said. "On the very front end, it seems like our prices drop about $7 a day, and if you gib, you lose three days. It might cost you $20 a box," he said.

Cherry volumes are expected to build in the coming days as farmers begin to pick the Brooks, Coral Champagne and Tulare varieties, with harvest in the southern district peaking in about two weeks, Gotelli said. Packers agree harvest of Bing cherries, still the most widely grown variety, will come later this year, with an estimated 60% of the fruit arriving after Memorial Day, traditionally an important holiday for retailers to promote cherries.

"This year, there really won't be any Bings on Memorial Day, but we'll have them for Father's Day," Persky said.

Breanna DeVita of King Fresh Produce said she's not too concerned about having lighter Bing volumes going into Memorial Day, as there will be other red-cherry varieties available.

"There are so many varietals out there," she said. "We're going to do our best to plan accordingly to cover everyone—it just may not be Bings."

Murray said he thinks cherry marketers should do more to promote the different cherry varieties, the way apple varieties are branded and promoted. Farmers, he said, are much more enthusiastic about new cherry varieties, which have different qualities of firmness and sweetness that should be branded.

"I think increased consumption comes through branding," he said.

Murray started picking "a very small amount of fruit" last week—enough to sell to farmers markets—and will be picking for packinghouses and the export market this week. He said about 75% of his trees "set a nice crop," with about 20% producing just half a crop. This puts him in a "good position," he said, though he noted some orchards in his region have not done as well. He described how some growers saw their trees bloom, but then the flowers aborted, resulting in a poor crop. Others set a large crop and are now "fighting smaller sizes."

"It's a mixed bag," he said. "I don't think we're going to have a blockbuster that San Joaquin County is going to have."

He noted growers are already downgrading their original estimates and forecasts as they drop more fruit on the ground. He said he thinks the crop from the southern district will also have more spurs and doubles—caused by extreme heat the previous summer during flower-bud formation—and that could further lower pack-outs.

"It continues to be a difficult area to grow cherries down here," he said.

Even though farmers in his region are planting more newer varieties that don't require as much winter-chilling time to set fruit, Murray noted that Kern County cherry acreage continues to drop, with growers switching to other, more-attractive crops such as almonds, pistachios and table grapes.

Higher temperatures last week also may compress harvest, possibly resulting in some overlap this year between the southern and northern districts, he added.

Persky said he expects a "fairly smooth transition" with not much overlap between the California cherry season, which will probably run through mid-June, and the Pacific Northwest season, which is also running late this year. Gotelli, however, said he thinks the delay in the Northwest crop will result in a "big gap" in the market, though "we just don't know how big it is right now."

DeVita said she expects the early market will stay strong for at least another week or two, at which time volumes will get heavier.

"Opening quotes have been strong," she said. "Business has been steady. Interest has been incredible. We're looking forward to a good season."

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Quote of the Day:
"Agriculture is not crop production as popular belief holds - it's the production of food and fiber from the world's land and waters. Without agriculture it is not possible to have a city, stock market, banks, university, church or army. Agriculture is the foundation of civilization and any stable economy.

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