Cherry growers cautiously optimistic

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By Craig W. Anderson

After a pandemic, economic malaise, mandated masking, social distancing all driven by a virus, the 2021 cherry crop could provide a much needed emotional and financial boost to San Joaquin County’s agricultural industry.

“Over the last 12 months, the agricultural community and everyone else has experienced a radical, significantly troubling pandemic,” said San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker. “What we need is a smooth, safe cherry season, a good crop, good market, a good price and that people get paid well and quickly.”

Of course, it’s cherries we’re talking about here and with this sensitive fruit, anything goes when its season rolls around. But Strecker remains undaunted. “After all we’ve been through we need relief and this crop could do it.”

And it might be time for a cherry upsurge, according to the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Annual 2019 San Joaquin County Crop Report (the most recent figures available) cherries finished in the eighth position among the county’s Top Ten Crops with a value of $88,104,000 from 20,000 bearing acres.

The yield per acre was 3.74 tons – 2018’s yield was 1.10 tons – the totals tons were 74,700 for 2019, 21,900 tons for 2018 with the value per ton being the difference maker as 2019 checked in with $1,180 per ton but was far outstripped by 2018’s $4,100 per ton. All of which reveals the uniqueness of cherries regarding price and what growers receive.

A recent rain dropped a half inch on Linden orchards but “things should be OK as we move along toward harvest,” said Dave Taylor, CEO and manager of Anderson-Barngrover Ranch Co. in Linden. “At this point it wasn’t much of a bloom in some areas but here the bloom was strong and the bees should get out to continue pollination. There is a ways to go yet until harvest.” He said spraying could begin on earlier varieties over the next week and a half and that “people have finished cleaning orchard floors to prevent a naval orangeworm outbreak.”

Taylor echoed other growers when asked about prices; “Who knows? At this stage, it’s anybody’s guess.”

“The season will be late, according to some growers I’ve talked with,” said Kevin Stevens, a broker for KS International Foods, headquartered in Linden. “That rain we had recently affected some bees but the damage was light and I’d say it’s a little too early now to get a real accurate look at what the crop may be like.”

However, Stevens was less sanguine about the potential for the export marketplace which, he said, “looks to be pretty good. But COVID will still have something to say about it; Italy’s going on lockdown but Germany is viable as are other countries.”

He said, “Overall, people have to eat and our cherries are the world’s best natural ‘candy’. All the foreign markets will be recovering in different degrees from COVID so it’s something of a wait and see game.”

About the rain, SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett said, “Storms in bloom are always concerning no matter their strength or duration. It seems we made it through this one OK.”

The cherry processing realm is reacting positively, Blodgett said. “There are a whole lot of vaccinations taking place now in packing sheds for essential packing shed workers. It’s harvest preparation.”

In addition to vaccinations, the packing houses are concentrating on disinfecting equipment and machinery, cleaning surfaces and making certain everyone is following all protocols, Blodgett explained.

The rain impacted cherry growers by its mere appearance and currently, future forecasts are good, said Ken Vogel, SJFB first vice president and cherry and walnut grower in the Linden area. “The good news is that despite pollination remaining to be done, the good weather will allow the bees to finish,” he said. “There were good bees and bloom before the rain and I expect that to continue. It’s the timing and the weather. I think we’ll do well.”

As the cherries react to weather – good weather – SJFB Second Vice President Jake Samuel, a cherry grower, said that although it’s too early to tell what the crop will be like, one thing is certain: “If we’d had four or five days straight of rain, that would have been bad.” And that could have spoiled what Samuel said was “a good bloom and set so far.”

Guesswork about the future outcome generally is based in part on how Chile’s cherry crop has fared; it is used as an early crop benchmark and Samuel said Chile had a “little struggle due to weather, a rocky start in fact, something we hope to avoid here.” He has confidence in the USA’s domestic market and is equally confident about Canada’s market for cherries. “Consumers want one thing in addition to their usual foods. They want good, quality cherries and they’ll buy them, pandemic or no pandemic.”

The San Joaquin County cherry orchards have weathered the initial weather challenge and will be harvested from late April to late June to be an early arrival in U.S. markets.

Optimism may be hard to come by sometimes but the pandemic has done enough, said Vogel, and now “it’s time for optimism and farmers are always optimistic,” he said. “You have to be optimistic to be a farmer.”