Once again, the warm, dry winter threw cherry trees off their game all over the state. California usually delivers the nation’s early season cherries, but with yields down around a third of what they usually are you can expect to pay a whole lot more at the market.
The California Cherry Advisory Board has estimated the crop will be 25-50 percent smaller. That's serious news for the state's agriculture industry. Cherries bring in $200 million dollars a year in California.
Jeff Columbini of Lodi Farming is in the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley, so his cherry crop is only down about 50 percent.
Most cherry tree varieties require a certain number of hours under 45 degrees in the winter. But warm days followed by cold nights throw off a cherry tree. "It does not think winter is over with yet," Columbini says. "It hasn't develop strong buds. And so when temperatures do start warming up in the spring, it's forced out of dormancy and we get a weak, staggered bloom, and most of those flowers do not actually make it into cherries."
What the trees want is a wet, chilly winter with fog that keeps the daytime temperatures under 55 degrees.
Some orchards are so bare, growers aren't bothering to pick. There's a calculation to be made. "When there's fewer cherries on the tree, we pay higher wages," to offset the low yield, Columbini explains. Also, that staggered bloom results in a staggered harvest, requiring pickers to pass through an orchard repeatedly. Increase the wages, and you increase the costs, which leads to higher prices at the store.
Bad years are becoming more common in California, thanks to climate change. There's always crop insurance, but Columbini says he's heard rumors that some growers in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley are getting frustrated with the spotty harvests, and pulling up their cherry trees. There are varieties that don't require as much winter chill, but they all require some chill.
Murray Family Farms in Arvin, southeast of Bakersfield, is not pulling up any trees, yet, even though "It's pretty terrible." Ashlee Beason is the farm's farmers' market director and store supervisor. She says Murray grows 27 varieties, and this year, only 12 bore fruit. "We didn't get our chill hours this year. Early varieties came in at 50 percent. The later varieties didn't come in at all."
This was the third year of bad harvests in a row for Murray, "but this year is definitely the lightest." Just the same, Beason says the farm is going to "hang tight" and hold on to its cherry trees. Some varieties, like the GG1, are exclusive to Murray. "They are pretty fabulous, the size of a small plum, sweet and juicy and dark. When we take them to the farmers' market, they will sell out." The farm serves Southern California farmers markets primarily, but it does get as far north as Las Vegas and San Luis Obispo. Expect to pay $2 more per pound.
On the plus side, a smaller crop typically delivers sweeter, firmer, larger fruit. Jeff Columbini insists this year's cherries taste better, an assertion this reporter has confirmed through personal research.
Cherry lovers don't need to fear deprivation. Washington and Oregon states are the bigger producers, and they start delivering in early June. But if you want to eat local cherries, don't wait: the season here ends in June.