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California apricot crop appears early with variable set but good quality

The outlook for the 2014 California apricot season varies from grower to grower, from location to location and from variety to variety. In general, however, it appears that the crop will start earlier than usual, the set is variable but averaging lighter than normal, and quality looks very good.

For Family Tree Farms in Reedley, CA, which is "a major player on early season apricots," the orchards are showing "a very mixed set," Don Goforth, director of marketing, said in early April. Apricots-LA-The 2014 California apricot season will start earlier than usual and quality looks very good.This year, "our start date on apricots is May 1."

For some varieties, "I have heard the word disaster" used to describe the set. On other varieties, the set "looks OK," he said. "In general, on early-season apricots, we are looking at probably half a crop," but the lighter crop could mean "sizing might be a little bigger."

For Homegrown Organic Farms in Porterville, CA, the apricot crop appears to be "close to normal, from what I can tell," said Stephen Paul, category manager for stone fruit and fall fruit. "I don't view it as heavy, I view it as normal, or it could be even slightly lighter than normal" depending on location.

Quality looks exceptional, and the crop is very clean, Paul said. "During bloom time, we had fairly dry weather, and for organic that is a huge plus."

The crop is early and is "moving rapidly with this type of weather that we are currently experiencing in the Central Valley," he said. "We have an early variety that we think we are going to be starting as early as around the 22nd or 23rd of April. Last year we were early. This year is even earlier."

"The crop, relative to the past three or four years, is what we consider to be on the lighter side," said Jim Hanson, general manager at Grower Direct Marketing LLC in Stockton, CA. "Our apricots are a proprietary variety that we have planted in the Arvin district" and other locations as far north as Fresno. "In all areas, it is not a full crop, and that corresponds very closely with what other people are saying about the early apricot and tree fruit deal. It is just not set as well as people would have liked to have seen it."

As a result of the light set on early varieties, "apricot availability for the first three weeks of May will be lighter than it has been for the past few years. That may be due to inadequate chill, or to other factors, he said, "but the fact is it did set lighter."

However, "the crop is clean" and fruit size looks good, Hanson said. It just is "not as plentiful as it was last year."

"We will be off a little bit" on apricots because of a light set, Justin Bedwell, managing partner of Bari Produce LLC in Madera, CA, said April 11. The set was erratic, and that appears to be true on other stone fruit as well, he said. Some varieties in some locations had good sets and "the same variety a couple of miles down the street didn't take." Overall, as to the the number of prices of fruit per tree, "we are down from last year."

Fortunately for Bari Produce, the company has a new 60-acre block of apricots I production, "so I think we will have more packages in total, but that took more acreage to get there."

Bari is "still doing three main varieties of apricots," Bedwell said. "We are starting off with the Kaylece variety," a newer variety that "was a numbered variety last year. It looks just like a Poppycot, but it is five to seven days earlier. It is primarily an 80-84 tray pack" with a "nice yellow-orange color and good flesh." He expected the harvest to start April 21-22 -- about five to nine days ahead of last year.

Poppycots will also start about nine days earlier than last year for Bari, he said. But "as you get deeper into the season, that earliness shrinks," so later varieties of stone fruit appear not to be as far ahead of normal as the earlier varieties.

Around mid-May, Bari will start its Giant Lorna variety, which is a major portion of the company's apricot production.

"That will carry us another six weeks," Bedwell said. All of the company's apricots are grown by Logoluso Farms. "We always hand pack all of them."

Grower Direct's proprietary apricot varieties are marketed under the trade name "Monster Cot." They are series of proprietary varieties with similar characteristics that the company describes as exceptionally large size, good color and good flavor.

Grower Direct has been growing "Monster Cots" for the last seven seasons, and through 2013 production increased each year as young plantings continued to mature.

"Monster Cots" have "gained a great following at the retail level," said Hanson. With the lighter set this season, "it is unfortunate that we don't have more of that product to offer this year, but that is what Mother Nature has handed us."

Homegrown Organic Farms starts its apricot harvest with the Tasty Rich variety. "It is an extremely delicious variety" and "one of the best eating pieces of fruit early on," said Paul. "It is phenomenal. It is a beautiful, full-color apricot" and "very flavorful. Just a fine piece of fruit."

From there, Homegrown moves into Earlicot. "Then we end up with Brittany Gold," he said.

"I think we do apricots fantastic," said Family Tree's Goforth. "We leave them on the tree so that they taste like apricots" and grow only varieties with great taste. There was a time when the industry was growing some varieties that had great yield but "just didn't taste good. "Consistent with the brand of 'Family Tree,' that just didn't fly for us, so we removed all those old varieties. All we are doing now is tree ripe Earlicot and Apache, both of which are just outstanding flavor. I wish we had more of them."