Strong thunderstorms last weekend put a big damper on what was looking like a bumper crop for many California cherry growers. While it’s too early to put an official dollar value on the damage, the general feeling is that the equivalent of a few million boxes of cherries have been lost. The crops affected most were early season varieties, as well as a large portion of the Bing crop. Excessive rain causes cherries to split open, leading to the likelihood of mold and fungus damage. The rain has hit almost every cherry-growing region from the southern Santa Clara Valley, to the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
“The cherry crop has been devastated, especially the early season varieties,” Tom Valenzuela of Sunriver Sales told Fresh Plaza in an interview published May 21, 2019. “There is a chance some of the later season cherries can be salvaged, but we won’t see those until mid-June at the earliest. Tree fruit in general was hit hard, not just from the heavy rain, but also the hail. This was on the back of an already wet winter and spring which could also have an impact on future crops such as grapes.”
It’s terrible news as some cherry growers will probably have to walk away from their fields. Joe Cataldo of J&M Farms in Lodi, California announced the loss of his cherry crop on Facebook saying, “When it rains it pours. We just witnessed one of the craziest storms ever seen this late in May. This was a true winter storm. The damage it caused has turned one of the best crops we have ever set, into garbage for the birds. Devastating is an understatement.”
Don Goforth of Family Tree Farms near Reedley, California said the company had already begun its cherry harvest when the storms hit. “These storms will have a considerable impact, with the most obvious damage inflicted on the cherries,” he observed. “We are about half way through our harvest but have been significantly affected. Some of our blocks are okay but others we are abandoning completely due to severe cracking. We will be busy surveying the damage over the next week but it will certainly turn into an interesting season with supplies expected to dramatically tighten up as we transition to the northern regions.”
Just a few weeks ago, growers were predicting a record harvest of 10 million boxes of cherries. Then the weather forecasts started to change and growers hustled to get as many cherries off the trees as they could. Among major commercially grown fruits, cherries are known to be the last trees to bloom and the first to harvest each year. The California cherry season spans a small time window, from mid-May through the third week of June, around the time of the summer solstice. Unlike some other fruits, cherries don’t ripen once they’re picked, so whatever’s still on the trees is getting hit by the rain. California is the second-largest producer of cherries in the country behind Washington state, so even partial crop losses can be devastating.
Late May is typically very dry in these regions, with average daily rainfall ranging from a trace to 0.06 inches. However, on May 18 and 19, daily rainfall records of one-half inch to one inch were reported in several locations from Redding to Hanford. Weekend totals of 0.79 inches and one inch were reported in Reedley and Lodi, respectively, near J&M Farms and Family Tree Farms.
Cherries are notoriously susceptible to extremes of weather, but the recent storms have also slowed planting of other crops that would normally be ready for harvest months from now. So there could be shortages and higher prices for many types of produce later this summer. For the next few weeks, the cherry market may tighten up as volumes diminish. This comes as shippers were hoping to fill orders for Memorial Day, a popular time for people to use cherries in fruit salads and pies.
The Stockton, California freight market includes many areas where cherries are grown, as well as other fruits and vegetables. The SONAR chart above shows around a 20 percent decrease in the reefer tender rejection rate (RTRI.SCK – green line) since the heavy rain began (RAIN.SCK – yellow line). This means carriers operating refrigerated trailers known as “reefers,” the type necessary for hauling produce, have seen a corresponding decrease in freight volume out of the Stockton market. Because produce volumes have declined due to the storm damage, carriers have fewer options and can’t be as choosy about the loads they accept (and as a result they reject fewer tendered loads). The extra capacity allows shippers to reduce the rates they offer to the carriers.
“The recent rain storms couldn’t have come at a worse time for California cherries with the Memorial Day pull in full swing,” said Ira Greenstein of Direct Source Marketing. “Last week the industry struggled to pack sufficient volumes to fulfill their holiday commitments. Weekend orders were pushed, prorated and canceled, leaving many retailers scrambling to get fruit on the shelves. Pricing on pre-committed program business ranges from $32-$45, while the spot market is trading from $45-$55 with only limited volumes available. We might not see shippers resume normal packing schedules until the middle of the week, leaving most of the industry unable to find fruit to cover heavy Memorial Day promotions.”
Greenstein added that a cherry crop originally estimated to be well over 10 million boxes may now drop well below seven million. “Many growers may choose to not harvest fruit at all and go the route of filing for insurance money. Either way, this recent weather event has put the California cherry industry into a state of disarray and it will take the balance of the week to truly understand the long-term effects for shipments in June.”
It may be a day late and a dollar short, but, for the rest of the week the weather should be largely dry at these farms, as well as others in the region. Official National Weather Service weather alerts can be found on this interactive map, and look for weather updates on the FreightWaves website.