In late winter and early spring, expectations for an outstanding cherry season were high as the crop began to take shape, but recent cool, wet weather has local farmers scrambling to preserve the promise of high crop yields.
The late-season rains present two problems: rain sitting on growing cherries can cause the skin to split, ruining the fruit, and it can cut short the already brief cherry season by dissuading customers from coming out. Muddy parking lots and orchards are less than ideal on U-pick farms, and many farms closed this past weekend or have delayed their opening until the fields begin to dry out.
But despite the challenges and some crop loss, farmers remain optimistic about the remainder of the season.
“I don’t think we’ve had a total left turn,” said Jessica Enos, marketing director for 5 Star Cherries. “Clearly there’s been rain. Clearly the farmers are out there doing everything they can to mitigate the damage and still bring in a great crop. I think what we’re talking about now is a percentage of the crop, but it’s not a disaster, by any stretch. There’s plenty to pick. There’s low-hanging fruit. There’s tons of positives.”
Glenn Stonebarger, business partner at G&S Farms in Brentwood, farms about 160 acres of cherries, of which 60 acres are set aside for U-pick. He has a similar perspective on the early season.
“We had good, cold weather during the winter and we attribute that, partly, to setting a good crop in Brentwood,” said Stonebarger. “Actually, we did set a really nice crop and our expectations are high and they’ve been good. The rain affecting them, it depends on the variety. This past rain on the corals that were in a certain stage, it did do damage. We’re thinking there’s only five to 10 percent that were affected. That’s a good thing.”
Different varieties of cherries ripen at different times and the early-season cherries have been most susceptible to the effects of the rain, while, according to Stonebarger, ripe cherries are less likely to be damaged.
“We started getting rain right at that peak growing time, when they start to size,” explained Larry Enos, owner of 5 Star Cherries. “That water just starts to crack it. There’s not a lot of skin there, so it stretches and it splits. It’s a bad timing thing.”
Larry Enos has grown cherries since 2002 and currently has 160 acres in production in the area, and another 195 acres that are still maturing. He said it takes five years on average for a cherry tree to produce its first viable fruit. About 50 acres of his cherries are set aside for U-pick, while the remaining 100 acres is grown for commercial sale.
“The U-pickers really don’t take that much,” said Larry Enos. “But we like to keep the community involved and let them come out and get some fresh produce. That’s why we work mainly commercial.”
Farmers are employing multiple strategies to keep damage to a minimum. One approach has been to start the commercial harvest earlier than planned. While doing so does get the fruit off the trees, the cherries don’t have the time to reach their full growth potential, and that can have a significant impact on the prices paid by commercial buyers.
“On the U-pick side it doesn’t change at all,” said Stonebarger. “On the commercial side, it changes, and we pick a little bit on the early side with these rains coming. Like everybody in the area for the last few days — prior to the first rain and now, just prior to the second rain — everybody is picking and we’re going a little bit deeper. So, you would be picking a little bit greener fruit to be shipped. The sugar in the fruit is not quite as high, but everybody is trying to beat the rain and ship it.”
Larry Enos has been using sprayers typically used to apply pesticides and fungicides to blow air over rain-soaked cherries. And a number of farmers have hired a helicopter pilot to fly low and slow over the orchards.
“We fly about a foot above the trees at about eight to 10 miles per hour,” said Andy Stein, helicopter pilot for the Brentwood-based company, Aerial Control. “Sometimes the grower wants us to go slower. I usually go every third row. It takes about an hour to do a 40- or 50-acre field.”
Even with a cost that can exceed $1,000 an hour, Stein has been kept busy flying.
“This year we’ve done a lot (of crop drying) because they said it was the biggest and best crop in a long time,” said Stein. “The early cherries were huge. They’re trying to save their crops, but we can’t get to everybody.”
Speaking as rain began falling — fizzling what should have been a busy Saturday — Bloomfield Cherries owner Tom Bloomfield lamented losing to rain a prime U-pick weekend.
“The crop is holding up,” said Bloomfield. “It’s a very nice crop. The quality to this date looks very good. It’s just that we’re losing weekends. We have a limited amount of weekends. Cherries don’t like rain. They don’t like heat. As we get into the longer days into June, the crowds tend to diminish and you expose yourself to heat. Normally we have five to six weekends. You put five to six weekends starting now, you’ll be in the third weekend in June … hopefully, people will still be coming.”
For real-time updates on U-pick hours and locations, visit Harvest Time Brentwood at harvestforyou.com.