Cherries improve after rough start
Warm winter destroys crop near Arvin, Bakersfield
By DAN WHEAT
The first couple of weeks of California's cherry season in Bakersfield and Arvin were a bust with little fruit, but harvest improved as it moved into the Visalia, Fresno and Madera areas.
Growers are expecting heavy volumes of Bing cherries around Stockton, Linden and Lodi, industry leaders say.
That's all provided there's no rain -- which cut the crop in half last year -- but the forecast looks good.
An 8 million box crop is still likely with just 1.6 million, 18-pound boxes shipped as of May 24, said Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Cherry Advisory Board in Sacramento.
About two-thirds has been sold domestically and a third to Japan, Canada and South Korea, he said.
Bing cherries should account for 5 million boxes and peak June 7 to 12, dovetailing with the start of the Pacific Northwest's much larger crop. California's harvest will finish in the Hollister area at the end of June.
It began April 25 in Bakersfield and Arvin, but the crop was almost nonexistent because of a warm winter.
"Arvin was a disaster. No cherries at all. Nothing set. A lot of orchards didn't pick," said Tom Gotelli, plant manager of Stockton's O-G Packing, which normally packs a lot of Arvin cherries.
Trees didn't set much fruit because weather stayed too warm in January and trees never became fully dormant, Gotelli said.
"It was the harvest from hell," said Kyle Mathison, owner of Kyle Mathison Orchards of Wenatchee, Wash., who did pick his Bakersfield orchards.
"It was like an Easter egg hunt," he said. "Less than a ton per acre. I've never thought of picking cherries as aerobic exercise."
"Those who could pick were young and could travel many miles a day. It was up the ladder, pick two or three cherries and back down."
Because the fruit was so scarce, Mathison said, he averaged over $85 per box the first three weeks but doesn't think even that high price quite covered costs.
It's important now for a decent Stockton crop to capture retail shelf space for the huge Washington crop to follow, said Mathison, who spoke from his orchard in Chile and has extensive orchards in the prime cherry region of Wenatchee's Stemilt Hill.
Mathison said he hopes his losses in Bakersfield are made up in Wenatchee but that it depends on good quality, size and movement. Otherwise, the market will be flooded and cherries will be dumped, as happened in 2009.
"The industry is getting better at marketing all the time," he said. "We should be able to get shelf space and make a good year out of it."