By Vicky Boyd
For much of the week before the May 17-19 rain forecast, Linden cherry producer Ken Vogel anxiously watched weather reports and weather radar because he planned to start harvesting his Bings the week of May 18.
If it had to rain, he said, the best scenario would be light showers followed by cool weather and breezes to dry the fruit quickly.
Vogel, San Joaquin Farm Bureau first vice president, got his wish as the original 60% chance of rain evolved into a forecast of scattered showers amounting to only a few tenths of an inch.
“We got the rain at the right time during the evening and night,” he said. “We had clouds and wind and it was cool. We did pretty well. We looked several times, and we had only a little bit of damage that doesn’t amount to much. If we had rain this morning (May 19) and had the sun all day, it wouldn’t have been good.”
Cherries weren’t the only crop that escaped severe rain damage as the forecast evolved. Grape and hay producers said they also were able to deal with the untimely precipitation and likely will see only minimal yield reductions.
But in no other commodity could a huge collective sigh of relief be heard than from San Joaquin County cherry growers.
Crop came through ‘better than I thought’
“The crop looked like it came through in really pretty good shape – better than I thought,” said Jim Ferrari, who farms with sons Nick and Joe near Linden. “There’s a few cracks, but we don’t know yet how much because we haven’t gotten word back from the packing shed. They have these optical sorters and they can really see the cherry all the way around 360. They pick out flaws we can’t even see ourselves.”
The cherry crop also is lighter than average, which may be a benefit because the clusters of fruit are smaller and don’t touch as much, said Nick Ferrari. This allows for better air flow and improved drying after the rain.
The Ferraris had already picked their early Coral and Royal Hazel varieties before the rains and were waiting to begin picking their later Bings May 22.
“For the last two years, we didn’t even pick a cherry,” said Jim Ferrari, SJFB board member. “This year we at least will pick some. It’s a light crop so even if the rains had ruined them, we wouldn’t lose that much.”
Like many other Linden cherry growers, Jake Samuel and his family had already picked their early varieties and were waiting on their later Bings when the rain hit. Depending on the orchard’s location, he said they received from 0.25 to 1 inch.
After each rain, they ran airblast sprayers through the orchards to try to dry the fruit and minimize the chance of early morning dew.
“We’ve been picking the last two days, and we definitely see a few cracks, but the damage wasn’t to the extent we thought it would be,” said Samuel, SJFB second vice president.
San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner Tim Pelican said he hadn’t heard of any significant damage from cherry growers as of May 20
“I think it helped that the weather was cool and we had some breeze,” he said.
The concern with heavy rains near cherry harvest is the fruit absorbs moisture, causing the internal flesh to swell. Because the skin doesn’t stretch much, the fruit cracks.
Such was the case in 2019 when three storms dumped several inches of rain on San Joaquin County in the latter half of May. What could have been a record crop statewide was devastated, with county growers reporting losses of 50% to 80%. Many didn’t even try to pick the crop, instead filing crop insurance claims.
Before the rains, the 2019 crop was forecast at about 10 million 18-pound box-equivalents.
Had 2020 proved to be another disaster, it would have marked the fourth year out of five that the county’s cherry crop was damaged by weather. It also would have been more difficult to declare a disaster because losses have to be at least 30% of a five-year average yield, Pelican said.
“So if you had (a disaster) four out of five years, your average is going to be pretty low and you’d have a hard time getting to that 30%,” he said.
This year, the California Cherry Board forecasted a crop of about 7 million boxes. During a typical year, the Stockton-Lodi district accounts for more than 60% of the state’s overall cherry volume.
Staying ahead of mildew
Brad Goehring, who grows winegrapes near Clements, said he altered his fungicide program to avoid applying the material right before the rains, which would have washed it off. Instead, he applied sulfur after the storms.
“It really depends on the materials,” said Goehring, an SJFB board member. “We use a lot of (dusting) sulfur. Wettable sprays would have been fine, but sulfur would not have been, so we just waited. We’re in prime powdery mildew weather right now.”
Bruce Fry, who grows winegrapes near Lodi, said he also has been trying to stay ahead of powdery mildew by making preventive applications to protect new plant growth.
“After we had that rain, we had to come back as soon as we could with dusting sulfur,” he said. “Every year it seems like there’s a little rain in May, and we deal with it and change up to get everything covered.”
The rains also may have affected some of the later grape varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon, that were blooming or starting to bloom during the storms. But Fry, an SJFB board member, said he only expects a slight yield reduction because of that.
SJFB President David Strecker, who farms in the Delta, had hay down when he received about 0.1 inch of rain followed by sun and a breeze. The additional moisture delayed baling by a day, “but I wouldn’t say I had rain-damaged hay,” he said.