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California cherries -- this year, enjoy them while you can because they’ll be scarce

Maria Padilla plucks a Bing cherry from a tree in 2008 at the Rowe Farms near Naches, Wash. That state had the biggest cherry crop in 2013, with California coming in second. But California's cherry crop this year won't be big.
(Gordon King / Associated Press)
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If you love California cherries, you’d better get ‘em while they’ve got ‘em. After a warm winter that didn’t give trees the dormant rest that they need, this year’s harvest looks like it will be very short and extremely light. Fortunately, the quality is generally good, so what cherries you can find will probably be tasty, if pricey.

How light? Ask Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Cherry Board, and he just chuckles. And it’s not a happy laugh, either. In fact, though the trade group hasn’t released official projections, “disaster” is probably not too strong a word to use for this year’s harvest.

It’s a little hard to pin down details so far, but we’re probably looking at less than half as many cherries as in a normal year.

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“We have some people who actually might not harvest at all because their labor expenses for picking the fruit might not be as much as they could hope to recoup from the sale of the crop,” Zanobini says. “That’s a real concern.”

The figures that are available are dismal. The harvest from the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley wound up last week at right around 900,000 (18-pound) boxes, the standard unit of measurement in the trade. Last year’s southern district haul, which was by no means a bumper crop, was right around 2.8 million boxes at the same point in the harvest.

Overall, Zanobini says, California growers will be lucky to make 3 million boxes this year, compared with an average year’s harvest of about 8 million boxes.

Though Washington state and Oregon were the long-time leaders in cherry growing, since the mid-1980s, California has come on strong, thanks to adventurous growers in the Central Valley who are willing to gamble on borderline weather in order to get a shot at an early harvest that can be sold for high prices before the Northwest crop hits the market.

The growth in California cherries has been phenomenal. In 2013, the state accounted for 82,000 tons of fruit, ahead of Oregon’s 46,000 tons and second only to Washington’s 169,000 tons.

But when you gamble, sometimes you lose. And that’s pretty much what happened this year. Cherry trees need a certain amount of cold winter weather in order to go dormant and produce the best crop. This year’s warm winter didn’t provide that.

And what cherries there are have been harvested far earlier than normal. Cherry season in California typically begins in the middle of May, but this year picking started in mid-April. The peak for Bing cherries, California’s most popular variety, should begin about now until early June.

It’s an exceptionally tough situation for cherry farmers. Just because you see high prices for your favorite fruit, don’t assume the growers are making a killing.

“There really is a rationale for why the prices are so high,” says Zanobini. “This is a very difficult year for cherry farmers. Those who have gone in and harvested are really putting a lot on the line with the hope that the prices will be enough to cover their expenses.

“But the good news is that the quality of the cherries that we do have coming off is really good.”


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