If you're a fan of summer stone fruit — and who isn't? — there's some good news. This year you won't have to wait until summer to enjoy it. In fact, you ought to start checking the market now.
It's another effect of this wacky winter weather we've been having. While all eyes have been focused on the long-term implications of the drought, California farmers are also aware of a more immediate situation.
Almost unnoticed in the last four years of little rain have been two successive exceedingly mild winters. And those mild winters have led to fruit being ripe and ready to pick at almost shockingly early dates.
In fact, cherries — the traditional bell-ringer for the start of the summer fruit season — are already being harvested. They started a solid three weeks before their normal date.
Much the same is true for apricots, plums, peaches and nectarines.
"We're much earlier than normal, if there is such a thing as normal anymore," says Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Assn., a trade group for fruit growers.
"We used to think about the first couple weeks of May kicking things off. Now more and more we're starting in mid- to late April."
Warm winter weather can cause problems for tree fruit — the trees need a certain amount of cold weather in order to go dormant and get enough rest to produce a big crop.
But so far that doesn't seem to be a major problem. While most are predicting crops that are slightly below average, they certainly won't be catastrophic as some were last year, when cherries, for example, were less than one-third the normal harvest.
"Sometimes with an earlier harvest, fruit doesn't mature quite as much as you'd like, but there's nothing you can do to slow the year down," says Jeff Simonian, from a Central Valley fruit family. "You have to go with the cards you're dealt."
This year's cherry harvest is predicted to be about 5-1/2 million boxes (in a throwback to older days, fruit crops are still measured in boxes — with cherries, each box is equivalent to 18 pounds of fruit).
That's much better than last year, which was a disaster at 2.6 million, but it's still short of the previous normal, which was about 8 million, says Chris Zanobini of the California Cherry Board.
And while normally a harvest this early could be a real boon to cherry farmers, getting their whole crop in before the much larger harvest from Oregon and Washington starts flooding the market, those states are forecasting much earlier harvests as well.
Picking started last week for some early varieties of peaches, plums and nectarines in the San Joaquin Valley and should be up to speed by the end of this week, says Bedwell.
It's still too early to predict how big the harvests for peaches, plums and nectarines will be, but he says they should be approaching normal, except possibly for plums, which are more dependent on chilling hours.
"That is, if there is a normal," he says. "Everybody is guessing at what normal might be these days."