PARTNERS

By Vicky Boyd 

San Joaquin County cherry producers are poised to harvest a large crop this season, barring
unforeseen bad weather. These green cherries near Linden were only about a month away from being
picked.

Photo by Vicky Boyd

 

Barring unforeseen bad weather during the next six weeks until harvest begins, this year’s San Joaquin County’s cherry crop appears set to rebound from the frost-ravaged season of 2018. And the larger crop actually may attract enough harvest crews motivated to make good money, reducing labor concerns.

Jim Ferrari, a Linden-area cherry grower and president of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau, describes his cherry crop this year as “extremely heavy.”

“The big part will be to try to get them to size,” he said. “At this point, I wish it were a little lighter because it would be easier to make them size. We have to worry about bigger cherries this year because there are so many that they aren’t going to want the 12-row cherries.”

He was referring to the smallest size grade of 54/64-inch diameter.

In the coming weeks, Ferrari said he will beef up irrigation and plant nutrition to push the trees to size the fruit. But the challenge with cherries is growers only have 60 days from bloom to fruit maturity, leaving little margin for error.

The situation is 180 degrees from last year, when Ferrari’s orchards were hit by frost and he only picked two bins of fruit to satisfy crop insurance requirements.

This year’s bloom started about a week behind normal, and the heavier crop will further slow fruit maturity. 

San Joaquin County growers say they expect to start picking early varieties in mid-May and finish up with late varieties in June.

Ferrari’s goal is always to finish harvesting his crop before Oregon and Washington enter the market with their much-larger volumes, which depress prices. From what he’s hearing, those regions to the north also are behind schedule.

“That’s one good thing – the pressure on the back end won’t be as bad, but it’s still a worry,” Ferrari said. “You want to be done before they start.”

Later crops in both California and Washington will aid for a smooth market transition, said Brianna Shales, spokeswoman for Stemilt Growers, which owns operations in Washington as well as Chinchiolo Stemilt California in Stockton.

“Everything is later, both in California and Washington, so it’s kind of nice because there won’t be much overlap,” she said. “Right now, weather pending, we’re looking at a nice, large crop of California cherries.”

How large is the question on everybody’s mind. Many within the industry say they expect something over 9 million 18-pound carton equivalents statewide.

If the forecast comes to fruition, it would be significantly larger than the 3.9 million cartons produced in 2018. This year’s crop is expected to be similar to 2017, when growers statewide harvested 9.5 million cartons.

Of the three cherry-producing districts in the state, Stockton-Lodi leads with more than half the volume.

In 2018, the district accounted for about 60 percent of the state’s production, or 2.37 million cartons. A year earlier in 2017, the Stockton-Lodi district harvested 6.1 million cartons, or 64 percent of the state’s total cherries.

Ken Vogel, a Linden area cherry grower and SJFB second vice president, is buoyed by the turn-around he’s seen in his orchard this season.

“This year, it looks like a good crop so far,” he said. “Of course, we’re a month and a half away (from harvest). There are a lot of things that can happen, but so far, so good.”

Vogel was unfortunate last year and lost about 80 percent of his early Coral variety and 85 percent of his Bing crop to freezing temperatures.

Jim Quaschnick, who farms near Lodi, said he also was optimistic about this season, describing his crop as “very nice.” That compares to his 2018 harvest, which was very light.

Based on April 18 weather, he said the cherries were about two to three days behind normal. But with warmer temperatures in the forecast, the trees could easily catch up.

“I think a lot can change with the weather, but right now, we’re a couple days behind last year,” he said.

Quaschnick said he expected to begin harvesting his Corals and Brooks – two early varieties – in mid-May. Then the bulk of his crop, which are Bings, would follow and come in before Memorial Day. 

This year’s large crop may not be a hindrance to finding harvest labor, Ferrari said, citing conversations he’s had with packinghouse representatives. 

“At least in the field, it won’t be that bad because of the amount of cherries. There will be a lot of people coming to pick them because if they’re motivated, they can make good money, especially with the big crop. But from what I’m hearing, it’s different in the packinghouses.”

“Every year for the last few years, we’ve been concerned about labor,” Vogal said. “If it’s a bigger crop, will there be more demand for workers? I don’t know. Again, we won’t know until the crop is starting to be picked.”