California’s cherry crop is 50 percent or less of normal this year because of too mild a winter and a lack of moisture.
Harvest started about April 20 near Bakersfield and likely will finish at Hollister and Gilroy in early June. The California Cherry Advisory Board has estimated the crop at 4 million, 18-pound boxes, but there is speculation it will be lower.
Volume depends on “whether people choose to harvest or not,” said Chris Zanobini, the board’s executive director in Sacramento.
The crop is so light, he said, that it doesn’t pay for some growers to pick. “It’s a block-by-block decision,” he said, noting some other chill-sensitive tree fruit crops are similarly effected.
Last year’s crop was 8 million boxes which has been the average for the past several years.
The cherries that are being picked and packed are of good quality and size but lack of volume will mean pent up retail and consumer demand by the time Washington state’s later and traditionally much larger crop is picked, Zanobini said.
A lack of chilly weather contributed to a poor fruit set, said Kyle Mathison, vice president of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., and owner of cherry orchards in Wenatchee, Bakersfield, Calif., and Chile.
“We had 28 degrees in the morning and then 78 degrees in the afternoon. The trees warm up. We needed more chill,” Mathison said during his first day of harvest at Arvin near Bakersfield on April 21.
There was more fruit in the bottoms than tops of trees which may result in some tops dying, he said. The crop might be as light as 25 percent of normal, he said.
“It definitely is a lighter crop. Everyone is concerned about what word to use. Some say it’s lighter than some of the light years, but up here in the north (Stockton, Lodi and Linden) we see a nice Bing crop,” said Daniel Moznett, director of marketing for Grower Direct Marketing, Stockton, one of California’s largest cherry marketers.
Horticulturist and researchers will study what went wrong with this year’s bloom but lack of chill, lack of fog, too warm a winter and being colder at the wrong part of chilling time may all be factors, he said.
The lighter crop means higher prices but also higher costs because growers may have to pick twice because of a variegated fruit set, he said.
OG Packing, an affiliate of Grower Direct Marketing, added another 32 lanes to its 40 lanes of high-tech Unitec optical cherry sorting at its plant in Stockton, Moznett said.
“We literally now have the largest optical cherry sorter in the world. It’s a significant investment and 100 percent of our fruit will go through that,” he said. “We will be the only packer this year running all our fruit through such a system.”
It provides more sizing options and more consistent size and color in packing while processing large amounts of fruit at very high speed, he said. Faster handling helps keep the cold chain intact from hydro-cooling in the field to delivery to retailers, he said.