Just-harvested Rainier cherries are processed at Warmerdam Packing near Hanford. Photo by David Castellon

published on June 13, 2019 - 1:37 PM
Written by Edward Smith

Though California’s worst-ever recorded drought was declared over more than two years ago, the five years of dry weather left their mark on Californians.

That’s likely why the state’s unusually stormy May was welcomed by so many people.

But among some California farmers, the heavy rain was anything but welcome, as the wet weather damaged blueberries and stone fruit and delayed harvesting of some naval orange varieties.

But for cherry farmers, the May weather was particularly unwelcome, as ahead of it they believed they were heading into a great 2019 harvest season.

“Across the state of California, we had a good set [of cherries]. We had good weather for the pollination,” and industry experts were predicting commercial cherry groves might produce about 10 million boxes, which could have been at or near a record for the state, said Russell Davidson, CFO of Warmerdam Packing, a grower and packer of cherries and other fruit northeast of Hanford.

Some in the cherry industry had predicted the amount of boxed fruit might go as high as 11-12 million.

But thanks to May’s rains, the number of boxes are predicted to reach just 4 million, said Tony Yasuda, a managing partner in KY Farming, LLC, in Reedley, a packing house that also farms about 350 acres of cherries.

The reason for the rain problem was because it hit in May, in the midst or California’s six-week cherry harvest season — which usually can land from late April or early May and last through early June — and each storm was followed by more storms through the end of the month.

How much rain? Scott Borgioli, a meteorologist and owner of WeatherAg.com, a Visalia-based forecaster for the agriculture industry, said various parts of the Valley had rain 200-400% above average May levels.

As to why the rain was such a bad occurrence for some crops, it’s a matter of timing.

“The bad side of all of this is here on the Valley floor, cherries were right at the peak of starting their harvests,” and that’s when they’re most vulnerable to rain, which they absorb through their skin, causing their insides to swell and crack or burst open while still on the trees, making that fruit unsellable, said Tom Tucker, appointed in April as Tulare County’s new agriculture commissioner.

Though some farmers growing early-season cherry varieties managed to get all or some of their cherries picked ahead of the storms, experts say many growers from Arvin to Stockton lost 50-70% or more of their crops.

“That tells you how we have been devastated. I mean, there are fields we didn’t even start to pick any crop in,” as there wasn’t enough good fruit left to make harvesting it financially worthwhile.

In the cherry groves that were picked, it often ended up taking three buckets of picked cherries to generate one full bucket of good fruit — after all of it had been inspected and the damaged cherries removed, as some of the cracks and splits can’t be seen easily by the pickers, Yasuda said.

Adding to cherry farmers’ woes is that the moist weather can also cause rot to set in among some of the uncracked cherries.

“So it’s really expensive picking and really expensive packing, because there’s so much rot that we just have to slow it down,” Yasuda said.

It may be months before the full financial effects of this year’s water-damaged

California cherry harvest are known. While it’s not clear if any farms will be lost over it, he said some farm layoffs seem likely.

“Chemical bills, fertilizer bills won’t get paid. Some vendors may not get paid. Some workers might not get paid. This year, there may not even be enough revenue in there to pay the pickers for picking.”

“Crop insurance doesn’t cover a lot, but perhaps it will help them make their mortgage payments for the year” though farmers may have to dip into their savings to pay for other things, Tucker added.

Hopes for a bumper crop next year seem dim, as growers worry that cherry trees will be less productive next year in response to having produced so much fruit this year.

Farmers who didn’t put out ladders in their cherry groves this harvest season may have to decide whether to do so soon, anyway, amid concerns that keeping the unpicked fruit on the trees may further stress the trees and lighten next year’s cherry crop, as well as drawing pests.

Cherries weren’t the only crop affected by the heavy May rains.

Yasuda said his company’s 300 acres of blueberries usually are ready to harvest in mid April, but this year they weren’t ready until mid May, right in the middle of the rains.

“They also crack like the cherries crack,” though those that don’t crack can turn soft from the moisture, a problem made worse when storms delayed pickers from harvesting them a couple of days or more at a time, Yasuda said.

Normally 90-92% of blueberries are picked and packaged in the Valley, with the remainder damaged or unusable, but this year the ratio of fruit getting packaged seems likely be about 50%-plus, he added.

As for other stone fruit — peaches, plums and nectarines — rain and hail caused some spotting and cosmetic damage in some groves, making them harder to sell to grocery chains that want attractive fruit, but farms still can make some money selling them to less selective grocer chains or to food processors or juicers, which pay less than selling them as table fruit.

Strawberries didn’t fare as well, as the falling rain splashed dirt on the fruit and the moisture has caused mold and rot in some fields.

Strawberry losses don’t seem severe, said Tucker, noting that “They’ll lose whatever was on the vine at the time, but fortunately, they’ll bloom continuously for awhile” producing more strawberries over the cooler portion of the summer.

He said he’s heard of no ill effects the rain has had on the Valley’s nut crops, and Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual reported that the rains delayed some harvesting of navel oranges and actually may have plumped up slightly the navels picked in the latter half of May.

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