’Perfect storm’ of factors decimate local cherry crop
By Margaret Burns
WINTERS — Woody and Rebecca Fridae did not have a single cherry on their tree this year. Neither did Debra and Joe DeAngelo.
Worse yet, Stan Lester and Ed George, commercial growers, barely had any either.
“It has been a virtual wipe-out,” said Lester, owner of Lester Farms, headquartered on Holmes Lane west of Winters. “Although there was a brief cold snap in December of 2013, January of 2014 was warm and dry.
“Cherry trees require a certain number of ‘chilling hours’ with temperatures less than 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Whatever chilling hours they had was counteracted by above normal temperatures the rest of the time.
“The trees bloomed normally, the pollination by bees was fine, the fungicides were applied appropriately — we had close to perfect management. But the trees set fruit very poorly. During bloom, we had days of the dry, north wind we often experience here. That desiccates the pollen and shortens its useful life, which also harmed fruit set.”
“This is the worst year I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if, between pest issues and drought conditions, growers consider pulling out their orchards.”
English colonists brought cherry trees to the United States in 1629. They were introduced later to California by Spanish missionaries. Cherry orchards have been well-established in the San Joaquin and Santa Clara Valleys since the 1800s, according to the California Cherry Board.
Almost all cherries grown in California are the sweet, directly edible variety, Prunus avium, while Michigan is a major grower of tart cherries (Prunus cerasus), which are canned and used in pies and baked and cooked goods. The two main cultivars in the markets in California are deep, mahogany red Bings and the lighter, gold-blushed Rainiers.
Central Valley growers have an advantage over the Oregon and Washington cherry growers in that California fruit is earlier to harvest and market.
Cherries are not a large crop in Yolo County, and do not appear on the top 20 crops list from the county’s Department of Agriculture. In Sacramento County, the number of harvested cherry acres more than doubled between 2006 and 2010. In 2010 there were 1,200 acres harvested with a yield of 1.5 tons per acre at a value of about $2,400 per acre.
“We try to get our produce from local growers, but this year a cherry tree that may have produced 20 or 30 pounds of fruit last year is yielding only two or three pounds of fruit,” said Marc Rodriguez, who co-owns R & R produce with Brent Knabke. “It’s not worthwhile to spray and harvest. I’ve had to get cherries from down south in Linden and Lodi, where there are larger operations, even though they have also been hurt badly this year.”
Chuck Ingels, farm adviser with UC Cooperative Extension in Sacramento County, summarized reasons for the poor cherry harvest.
“There were multiple reasons for the extremely poor fruit set this year. There were actually enough standard ‘chill hours’ this year. Chill hours measure the number of hours below 45 degrees from Nov. 1 through Feb. 15. But fruit trees are sensitive to warm winter days, which cancel out some of the chill received at night.
“There were other factors, too,” Ingels said. “Because of the low chill, some cherry varieties didn’t bloom at the right time, so in many cases there was insufficient bloom overlap between the main variety and the pollinator varieties. Also, the early December freeze coupled with warm days may have damaged some buds or affected their spring bloom.
“In my opinion, most importantly, cherries are very sensitive to high temperatures during bloom, which were as high as 80 degrees. This likely shortened the life span of the flowers. It was likely a perfect storm of many factors.”
Estimates from the California Cherry Board are that the southern San Joaquin Valley, which produced 2.8 million boxes of cherries last year, will have only one-third that number this year, although the quality is excellent.
We’ll all be paying more for our sweet cherries this season, and the Fridaes and DeAngelos are going to have to buy them, not pick them in the back yard.