May 14, 2018 - By Ching Lee - Freezing temperatures just as cherry blossoms began to break likely reduced this year's crop, with farmers in different growing regions reporting lighter yields.
Harvest in the southern San Joaquin Valley started in late April, according to the California Cherry Board, which said it expects the state's cherry season will run through early June.
(Left) An employee at Tesch Family Farms in Kern County harvests cherries in an orchard that has lower-profile trees to allow easier picking without the use of ladders. Photo/Cecilla Parsons
Compared to last year's "bumper crop" of 9.5 million cases, Keith Wilson, owner of King Fresh Produce, a grower-shipper-packer in Dinuba, said he estimates the statewide crop could be as low as 3.5 million boxes this year. Other marketers have reported estimates ranging from 4 million to 7 million cartons.
"That's how cherries are, though," Wilson said about the crop's boom-and-bust cycles, "especially in the south valley here in Bakersfield, Tulare, Kingsburg area. The varieties sometimes don't set well."
Chris Zanobini, executive director of the cherry board, said though "nobody really knows" at this point the size of this year's crop, he estimated it's between 3 million and 4 million boxes, or 54 million to 72 million pounds."
"The concern is that it is so spotty that most will not be harvested," he said.
Though yields are down, Wilson described fruit quality as "good," with sizes larger than last year. And with the lighter crop, he said market prices are "quite high this year."
Looking at some of the orchards in his region, Kern County farmer Greg Tesch described most of his neighbors' crops as "light" and his as "average." He blamed the spring-like weather in January and winter conditions in March for the lower yields in some orchards. Not only did the frost damage flower buds before bloom, he said, but the lingering cool and rainy weather during bloom reduced bee activity and pollination.
Because of the location of his orchard, Tesch noted he "did not get quite the freeze that others did." Irrigating his orchard during that critical period also may have brought temperatures up a degree or two and mitigated some damage, he added.
Although he has a "normal crop," he said, it is not as uniform as he would like, which means it will be more costly to pick his orchard multiple times.
"Looking around the neighborhood, we're fortunate to have those management issues to deal with," Tesch said. "We're very glad we actually have to pick the crop a few times. Some other people don't have to pick at all. It's a disaster for a lot of people."
Being the first cherries on the market, Tesch said demand is usually "extremely good" during this time, and this year, "demand looks well above average—and it shows in the pricing."
The price of cherries may be higher this year, but the increased price won't make up for the lack of production, said Fresno County grower Lance Jackson. He began harvesting the Coral variety earlier this week and said he likely won't pick at all in one orchard, where there is almost no fruit. At another ranch, he estimated production is down about 60 percent. Comparing the two orchards, he said it's likely that cold temperatures just prior to bloom caused the poor fruit set.
"Where the trees were in a little more-sheltered area, closer to a dwelling or on the edge of the field close to a road, they had a little more fruit," he said. "But you get out in the fields where the climate is 4 degrees colder, there's just nothing."
In the northern growing district of San Joaquin County, grower Michael Corradi said harvest of Bings, the most widely grown variety, will start toward the end of the month, and other varieties will begin sooner.
He said he thinks a combination of a low-chill winter and cold weather prior to bloom likely led to his crop being "later than average and lighter than average," though he noted the results vary depending on the orchard.
"We're going to harvest everything, so we'll know more later," he said. "Things were very favorable last year. We had a good crop, good weather and the market was strong. We're used to the cycle."
Kari Arnold, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Stanislaus County, said she's careful not to paint the 2018 cherry season as a disaster year "because it's really not." The crop may not be as robust, she said, but this was somewhat expected, because last year's crop was so big.
What wasn't expected, she said, was the freeze in the spring, which "did cause some damage to flowers." But the damage varied depending on the location of the orchard and whether growers were able to apply frost protection, she added.
"It's still going to be a good crop," she said. "It may not be the same as last year, but they're going to be good cherries. They're probably going to sell at a higher price because there'll be less of them."
She said she's concerned that word of it being a light crop may scare away field help, adding that "it's hard enough to get field labor in the first place anymore, because labor is becoming more and more difficult to come by and more difficult to keep."
Tesch said he's struggled to retain good employees, even though he pays above minimum wage. To attract more pickers, he's been planting low-profile trees that require no ladders. Even so, he said he's had trouble finding people to train.
Jackson, who's also starting harvest on early varieties of peaches and nectarines, said he has so far not encountered any problems hiring enough employees. But with his cherry crop being so short this year, he said, "it's not going to take a huge number of people."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Reprinted with permission: California Farm Bureau Federation