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Rare May rains bring bad news for cherry growers
 
By Vicky Boyd

Heading into the 2019 California cherry harvest, producers and packers were cautiously optimistic about the possibly record crop of high-quality cherries maturing on the trees. But a series of storms May 15-19 dumped over 3 inches of rain on some locations, dampening their enthusiasm by causing widespread fruit cracking.

As of May 24, some growers said their entire crop was a loss, and they were waiting for insurance adjusters to visit their operations. Others said the situation was a moving target, changing almost daily, and the jury was still out on how much fruit they would lose to splitting and cracking and whether harvesting was economically justified.

“With the cool weather we’ve had and the rain that we’ve had, the jury’s still out on whether we’ll be picking Bings,” said Jake Samuel, who grows cherries with his family near Linden. “Most of the industry is in the same dilemma waiting and seeing what the Bings do.”

Cherries are most susceptible to cracking as they near maturity, begin to turn color and sugars increase. Moisture from rains or heavy dews is absorbed through the skin, swelling the internal cells and causing the skin to burst or crack.

The San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner’s office began inspecting orchards for rain damage during the week of May 19, said Ag Commissioner Tim Pelican. Inspectors try to visit multiple orchards in different areas because microclimates and varietal make-up may influence how mature the fruit was during the rains.

He said it typically takes his office a couple of weeks to compile a damage report. In order to request a disaster declaration, the damage must be at least 30 percent of the past five-year average crop production, Pelican said.

If the threshold is met, the request is then sent to the state Office of Emergency Services. Pelican’s office also sends a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

A disaster declaration would make available low-interest federal loans, although Pelican said he suspects most producers will go through crop insurance.

“Rain has not been our friend,” he said.

Up until the storms, the cherry industry statewide had shipped about 3 million 18-pound cartons and was on pace to at least match, and possibly surpass, the record 9.6 million cartons packed in 2017. This year’s crop also was set to rebound from the rain- and freeze-shortened 3.9-million-carton crop harvested statewide in 2018.

During a typical year, the Stockton-Lodi district accounts for more than 60 percent of the state’s overall cherry volume.

Twice in a row

For the second year in a row, Jim Ferrari, who grows cherries and walnuts with his sons near Linden, will likely not harvest cherries. Last year, the ill-timed March freeze took his crop. This year, rains damaged his cherries to where it doesn’t make economic sense to pick.

“We have Bings that were just at the stage of changing colors, and that was the most vulnerable stage,” said Ferrari, San Joaquin Farm Bureau president.

A crop insurance adjuster was scheduled to visit his orchards in early June to determine overall damage. If he’s lucky, the insurance will cover the cost of production and make him “neutral.”

Even before the rains, Ferrari said his crop wasn’t the cleanest and had unusually high numbers of doubles, spurs and sutures – defects that reduce overall pack-out.

“With the big crop, it wouldn’t have hurt us that bad,” he said. “But with 30-50% splits on top of that, that just kills you. A lot of the Bing crop in the area is just devastated.”

Bings are the most widely grown variety of cherries in the state.

Each year as harvest begins, the earliest fruit brings the best prices. As volume increases, prices decline, so growers try to have the first fruit to market.

To do this, they apply one of a handful of products that causes trees to break dormancy and bloom up to seven days earlier. This also results in earlier fruit maturity.

“Most people stimulate in some manner, and very few people leave them alone,” Ferrari said. “All of the guys that stimulated, their crop was at that vulnerable stage.”

The other challenge is buyers prefer firm cherries, prompting growers to apply gibberillic acid – a natural plant growth regulator – to their fruit. But by doing so, they also make their fruit more susceptible to rain-induced cracking, Ferrari said. With a large crop, growers also went with higher rates of gibb.

“It was just a perfect storm,” he said. “When do you have 3 inches of rain in May? It was a one-in-30-year storm.

“We were OK until Sunday (May 19). After the first rain, they weathered it well and everyone’s crop was fairly good and there were very few splits. Sunday morning it started, and that was it.”

Now Ferrari has to worry about how to remove the cherries from the tree so they won’t affect the fruit buds developing this year for next year’s crop. He may use an air-blast sprayer and water or possibly a nut shaker.

Keep the faith

SJFB Second Vice President Ken Vogel, who grows cherries and walnuts near Linden, had picked nary a cherry before the storms.

“We were planning the first harvest of the Corals,” he said. “After the rain, I don’t figure we’ll be able to harvest anything. So this is the year for insurance.”

Vogel also has Bings, which he said won’t be worth picking, either. Because the fruit set this spring had been so large, he, his son and his crews had pruned the trees and applied extra fertilizer and nutrients to try to get the fruit to size.

And he’ll have to continue to tend his orchards this year, irrigating them and applying crop protection products when needed.

“Basically, this year is over, and we do what we can for next year,” Vogel said.

This year’s losses come on the back of 2018, when the mid-March freeze reduced his yields by about 80%.

Despite the challenges, Vogel said as a farmer, he has to remain optimistic.

“Some years it just doesn’t work out, but you have to keep the faith for the future,” he said.

‘Very tricky dilemma’

Coming off of 2018, when rains during bloom followed by a mid-March freeze reduced their crop by about two-thirds, Samuel was buoyed by this year’s crop potential.

“It was immaculate,” he said of the 2019 crop’s appearance before the storms. “We were gearing up to see one of the biggest seasons – I can’t say record – but it was shaping up to be a very healthy season. We were anticipating a good crop size with good fruit size and good quality.”

But all that changed with the mid-May rains, not to mention additional precipitation over Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s not good, to say the least,” said Samuel, who sits on the SJFB board and the California Cherry Advisory Board. “It’s kind of sporadic throughout each variety. Some varieties fared better than Bings, which showed the most damage.”

Samuel has the Coral Champagne, Tulare, Royal Tioga, Chelan, Rainier and Bing varieties. 

Like many in the industry, he said he now faces the quandary of whether to harvest the remaining crop. Not only does Samuel have to consider actual crop loss and insurance coverage, but he also has to watch how the market and prices respond.

“We’re definitely going to wait to see how things shape up,” he said. “We’re evaluating everything we can, and it changes almost every hour. It’s a very tricky dilemma we’re in – determining whether to pick or not to pick.”

Samuel and his family also operate Sunrise Fresh Dried Fruit and Nut Co. in Linden, which uses No. 2 grade cherries for its dried products.