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Weather dependent as always, California cherries have potential for sizeable crop

Crop production projections for any produce commodity always come with the caveat, "depending on the weather." With the vulnerability of cherries to rains during or close to harvest, or to hail and wind damage, that universal caveat is especially applicable to cherries, as nearly every person in the in industry with whom The Produce News has discussed the upcoming California cherry crop has been quick to point out.07-CalCherries-Crop-BrooksBrooks cherries on the tree in the central San Joaquin Valley of California.

That said, with three weeks to go before the first California cherries of the season would be picked, everything was looking favorable for a good crop in all varieties and in all districts, and the potential existed for a sizeable -- and possibly even a record -- crop.

Only the Tulare variety seemed to have a little bit lighter set than normal, but growers felt that would led to larger-sized cherries.

What appeared highly likely was that the early season varieties, which harvest in May, would have stronger volume than last year when a combination of weather factors reduced the size of the harvest. Growers and shippers expect promotional opportunities for California cherries by mid-May, something that didn't materialize in 2012.

California cherry acreage has been trending upward in recent years, with much of the new growth coming in early varieties in the southern districts. "We are actually trying to get our arms around an acreage survey," said Chris Zanobini, who manages the California Cherry Board. Although final results were not yet in, "we have some estimations. I know we are over 40,000 acres at this point, which is a huge shift from 10 years ago." Some of those acres are young orchards not yet in production.

California cherry production has fluctuated from a low of about 3 million boxes in 2006 to more than 8.7 million boxes in 2008 and 2010. Last year's volume was nearly 8.5 million boxes, and at least one major shipper sees a good possibility that this year could bring a record 9 million boxes to market.

"I would be shocked" if it is as low as 8 million or as high as 10 million, said Richard Sambado, president of Primavera Marketing Inc. in Linden, CA. He expects it will come in at "probably around 9. That is somewhat assuming no significant negative weather from April 25 to June 15," the most vulnerable period for the crop.

With regard to crop timing, some growers in early districts were expecting to pick a few boxes during the final days of April. "I think we will get started the first few days of May," Mr. Sambado said. "I think there could be some promotable numbers starting around the 14th or 15th of May," with non-Bing varieties peaking May 18 to 24, which would be a favorable situation for the Memorial Day pull.

He expects California Bings to peak May 28 to June 10.

According to Maurice Cameron, managing partner in the Flavor Tree Fruit Co. LLC in Hanford, CA, most of the cherry orchards in the company's program had good sets this year, so he was expecting a good crop, providing adverse weather does not intervene. He expected the company's earliest cherries to start "close to May 1."

One newer cherry variety that has been extensively planted and is beginning to come on in significant numbers is the Coral Champagne, sometimes called simply Coral.

"Corals are a very nice cherry," said Mike Jameson, marketing director for Morada Produce Co. LP in Linden, CA. "We have planted hundreds and hundreds of acres down in [the Arvin] district. A huge part of those plantings are corals. We will start getting crops off of them in the next couple of years." An early season variety, the Corals will allow the company to "get a nice start to our season" with more volume and with a variety "that we think is probably one of the better early season varieties."

Primavera Marketing has Corals planted from Arvin to Lodi. "It can be a very good cherry," said Mr. Sambado. But he has seen inconsistencies in the variety. "There is a wide range of growing practices and growing locations. I don't think, frankly, it has been allowed to meet its full potential." Proper crop load management as well as such other practices as proper watering and proper timing of the harvest "go a long way in determining quality." It is important, also, to plant it "in the right location," on the right root stock, and in the right type of soil, he added. Getting the best Coral cherry possible is "tough enough when all things align" and "more of a challenge" when they do not.