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Growers rush to harvest cherries in San Joaquin County

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Posted: Friday, June 4, 2004 10:00 pm

When the pink and white petals of the cherry blossom fall from their parent trees, it is most certainly a sign that spring has come.

Small, crenelated flowers perch delicately on branches like crinkled butterflies and last only as long as their resistance to the Delta breeze can hold them on the branches. Though they appear for such a short time, they provide a moment of peace and natural beauty to all who care to enjoy them.

But by the time blossoms have fallen into snowy piles on the orchard floor, the time for peace and serenity has passed.

This is when the race against time begins.

Cherries are everything their appearance suggests - saucy and luscious, bold and full-bodied. But given the shortness of the season itself, the work it takes to put a bowl of cherries on the table is no … well, you know.

"It's very labor-intensive," said Lodi grower Marc Warmerdam. "It's much more intense, much more exciting than grapes. From bloom to harvest we have 60 days."

Once a cherry is picked off the tree, production becomes like a game of beat the clock. The fruit will have to be treated, washed, sorted, packed, chilled and shipped, all within the span of two or three days.

Lodi is well-known as grape and wine country, but few credit it for the bustling cherry capital it has become in the past few decades.

By the end of the two-week harvesting season, which usually ends in early June, growers in San Joaquin County have produced about 38,000 tons of cherries. That's enough to make more than 25.3 million cherry pies. Many will reach shelves across the nation, but some won't stop until they've spanned the globe.

The desire for sweet cherries in springtime is a $75 million-dollar industry in San Joaquin County. Though the harvesting season is much shorter for cherries than for other locally grown fruits, growers throughout the county produce about 76 million pounds of cherries each year.

A Ranier cherry. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

These cherries are destined for markets both local and international. Some will end up on at a stand by the side of Turner Road, where cherries and money are exchanged, through the honor system, with the push of a few dollar bills through the slot of a wooden box.

Other cherries set out on an odyssey, that will take them from the sunny orContinued fromPage 1 chards of Lodi to markets on the crowd-packed streets of Tokyo.

One from this group of cherries can become a world traveler in the span of a few days.

The tiny round fruit, plucked from its hiding place in the shade of a leaf by the nimble fingers of a local cherry picker, will shake and bounce its way from plastic picking tubs to wooden packing crates.

After a brief moment of rest in the filtered sun of the orchard, the cherry will be dumped into a wooden crate and taken to a packer, where it is sure to be sprayed with fungicide and prepared for shipping.

This single cherry, destined for export to Japan, is only half done with its journey at this point.

Roberto Aguilar drives a speed sprayer down the long rows of cherry trees in Marc Warmerdam's orchard after small showers fell on Lodi recently. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

It will move through machines and along a conveyor belt at an export packing shed, passing through the watchful stares of sorters trained to pick out culls, the damaged and unsightly fruit.

It will then be run through nearfreezing water and spat out into precisely measured 18-pound box before being held in a refrigerated warehouse. Here, it will wait to be taxied, by way of a refrigerated truck to the cargo hold of a plane in San Francisco International Airport bound for Tokyo.

But even the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

On the tree

The growing and processing of cherries is a practice in patience and a labor of love.

A young cherry tree will not produce fruit until it is 6 or 7 years old, and does not reach full maturity for 10 to 15 years. It fails to provide the quick satisfaction of say, a bean or tomato plant. The cultivation of cherries tends to weed out the farmers interested in crops with quick returns.

Warmerdam, who has grown both grapes and cherries in Lodi, has had a love of cherries since childhood.

Fourteen years ago, he decided to turn that early love of cherries into a 20-acre crop.

Marc Warmerdam makes sure his Bing cherries are ready for harvest with a taste test. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

"It was something I always loved - the taste of them, the flavor," Warmerdam says, foraging a yet unpicked tree for the choicest cherry. "I like them big and lush-looking, firm and crunchy."

Having spotted his prey, he plucks a piece of fruit from its branch with strong, tanned hands that have been trained by years of cherry harvesting to be firm yet gentle.

He pops the fruit into his mouth. Chewing vigorously, he pulls the stem out between a set of healthy, white teeth and spits the pit out in front of him into the wetness of the long grass underfoot.

It's something he does probably a hundred times a day, though he won't admit to eating more than a handful.

"If I feel like I've eaten too many, I'll just keep a pit under my tongue," Warmerdam confides with an embarrassed grin. "Otherwise, I'm tempted to just eat cherries until I can't eat anymore."

Cherries have been a weakness of Warmerdam's since, as a young boy, he would pick cherries off the neighbor's tree.

Workers search for and remove any bad cherries before the fruit moves on to be washed and sorted. (Dan Evans/News-Sentinel)

His father Augustus Warmerdam grew cherries back in the 1960s, when agricultural advisers and experimental growing practices weren't as readily available as they are today.

The cherry trees were eventually replaced with pears, then in the 1970s with grapes, many of which are still being harvested. Warmerdam said his father was nervous for him when he made the decision to plant his own cherry trees.

"He was out here, worrying for a while because of the time-intensive nature of cherries," Warmerdam said.

"But I couldn't get enough of them, and the only way to have them longer is to grow them yourself."

For Warmerdam, the return is worth the investment. Despite the paranoia that even the slightest rainfall might cause the fruit to absorb water and split its skin, and despite the cherry's genetic mutation reaction to very hot temperatures, he still considers cherry cultivation to be exciting and challenging.

Unlike most other fruits, the cherry is a coy mistress, one which many growers court but seldom tame. Part of the desirability of the fruit is its appearance and market value, which in other countries is valued even higher than it is in the U.S.

The cherry-stained hands of Blandino Figueroa delicately, but efficiently pluck the ripe fruit from a tree limb. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

As Warmerdam pulls down on the end of a branch laden with deep red Bing cherries, he seems almost smitten, and it is certain that he will not be able let go without having just one more taste.

A picky business

Cherries don't pick themselves, and perhaps nobody knows this better than Salvador Gonzalez. Working on the Warmerdam farm, Gonzalez is in charge of about 60 pickers and is running the Galt-based business that his father Julian started in 1976.

Much like Warmerdam, who says producing "gets in your blood," Gonzalez says he too followed his father's footpath to the family business at an early age.

"All of a sudden, you wind up like your dad," a smiling Gonzalez says to Warmerdam as they stand among the pickers, who wait for a large fan to finishing blow-drying the trees the morning after a recent rain. "We said we were never going to be that way."

Freshly cleaned cherries fall into a large bin where they wait to be boxed and shipped. (Dan Evans/News-Sentinel)

The pickers at Warmerdam's that day seem eager for the picking to begin. Some are seated on the edges of a truck bed, while others stand in small groups, chatting in Spanish and laughing intermittently.

Their eagerness to work grows from their getting paid for production, instead of receiving an hourly wage.

A picker gets paid $6 for each 32-pound bucket he fills. According to Gonzalez, one man can fill between 12 and 20 buckets in a seven-hour day. At the prospect of having a $120 day, some of the men fidget in their places while Warmerdam decides whether or not the cherries are suitable for being picked.

When the fruit was finally pronounced pickable, the men take to the rows with ladders and tubs in hand. They slip their necks through the straps of smaller tin buckets that they will carry with them up into the leafy depths of the trees.

The clouds, left over from the rain of the night before, part just long enough to let thin beams of sun pet the heads of a random cherry tree and the picker wound up in its foliaceous embrace.

Popular California-grown cherry varieties
Bing
The most popular variety of cherry in the U.S., Bing cherries account for 80 percent of all cherries grown in California. Bing cherry trees produce large, dark red/mahogony-colored fruit and are savored for their firm texture and richness. This variety got its name from a Chinese worker in western Oregon who worked under famed fruit-grower Henderson Lewelling. The Lewelling farm was known for its sweet cherries in production in the 1870s and '80s.
Lambert
This true-red cherry is more heart-shaped and not as firm as the Bing or Rainier, and it is generally smaller in size than both. A sweet variety, the fleshy Lambert fruit is popular with consumers and like the Bing, got its start at the Lewelling farm in the 1800s.
Rainier
This variety is generally golden yellow with accents of pink blush and pale red. While the Rainier is sweet and firm, its taste is more subtle than the Bing. This cherry produces a colorless juice. The Rainier originated from the cross breeding of the Bing and Van varieties by Harold W. Fogle of the Washington State University Research Station.
Van
Harvested later in the season, the Van is sweet and deep red in color. When crossbred with a Bing cherry, however, the Van produces the much lighter-colored Rainier variety.
Source: California Cherry Advisory Board

When the wind quiets down, the orchard filled with the soft drumbeats of cherries as they hit hidden tin buckets. The sound is joined by the groan of rickety metal ladders, buckling under the weight of pickers who laugh and joke from tree to tree.

Cherry machine

Once the 32-pound tubs are emptied into 400-pound crates, the crates are taken directly to a cherry packing plant without a moment to lose.

The process is a hurried one because the cherry, once picked, is quite perishable, according to Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the California Cherry Advisory Board.

"Even maintaining good refrigerated condition, you're looking at about two weeks," Culbertson says, explaining why cherries are sent to the packing shed the very same day they're picked. "Any breakdown in the cold chain would affect its shelf life."

San Joaquin County is the major producer of California's sweet cherries, and about 25 percent of the 38,000 tons of cherries harvested annually are shipped to foreign countries where cherry production isn't as feasible as it is in California.

Many of the cherries that are exported from San Joaquin County go through companies located right in downtown Lodi, off Main Street.

This unofficial cherry row, nestled in between Lodi's former skyline and the railroad tracks, includes two packing sheds, refrigerated warehouses and the offices of the Cherry Advisory Board.

One of these packing sheds is Lodi Export Corporation on East Oak Street, run by General Manager Ken Sasaki.

Sasaki is not shy about what he calls "a passion for cherries." Like others involved in the immense task of cherry cultivation and production, Sasaki took up the business of packing from his father, Jim.

"When I used to come home from school, other kids would go home to watch TV," Sasaki recalled, adding with pride that he grafted his first cherry when he was 13 years old. "I headed straight to our packing shed in cherry season, and then we'd go home because my whole family was there."

Now, years later, with children of his own, Sasaki still gives 50 days of his life every year to the mad rush that is cherry season. From late April to early June, he works 18-hour days, supervising a crew of shippers and sorters who will be the last to actually handle the cherries on American soil.

"The stress and environment kind of get me at an emotional level," Sasaki said of the work it takes to meet the quality requirements imposed by Japanese buyers.

Too little or too much fumigation, or a five minute delay, can and will be the death knell of a one-half million dollar deal with cautious Japanese buyers, Sasaki says.

In addition to time constraints, cherry exporters who do business with Japanese buyers must quarantine the building to ensure no insects come into the packaging area and keep the building at a set temperature.

Most of Sasaki's employees have been working with Lodi Exports for years to make sure the cherries meet foreign protocol and reach the international market. Sasaki says some of them are third-generation employees of the packing shed.

When their work is done and the cherries are on their way to their final destinations, the sorters, like the pickers, will move on to other seasonal work, leaving the once-bustling packing shed what Sasaki describes as "a ghost town."

To Japan with love

California exports more than 20 million pounds of cherries to Japan alone each year, according to a 2003 annual report issued by the California Cherry Advisory Board. This accounts for about 20 percent of the state's total production.

Cherry facts
• Cherry growers must wait at least six years after planting to see any fruit production. Cherry trees can take as long as 10 to 15 years to fully mature.
• Cherries do not ripen off the vine. Growers have to make sure the fruit is picked at its peak ripeness.
• San Joaquin County cherry packagers ship their product to international buyers from Japan, Korea and Australia.
• Modern day cherry production began when Peter Dougherty, a Presbyterian missionary who planted cherry trees in Traverse City, Mich, in 1852. Today Traverse City is known as the "Cherry Capital of the World."
• Adding cherries to hamburger meat reduces the formation of suspected cancer-causing compounds known as HAAs (heterocyclic aromatic amines), according to researchers at Michigan State University. Earlier research had found the combination of cherry tissue and ground beef resulted in a product that is lower in fat, yet juicier and more tender than pure beef burgers.
• A 1996 Harvard study in published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, reported that the flavonoids found in cherries and other purple-colored berries could actually reduce the risk of death from heart attack in middle-aged men with coronary artery disease.
• Cherries contain anthocyanidins, which may help with varicose veins by strengthening the collagen fibers in the wall of the vein. Extracts of cherries and blueberries are used frequently in Europe for treatment of varicose veins.
• In July 2003, Brian Krause, 24, of Diomaondale, Mich, broke the world's record for pit spitting at the 30th International Cherry Pit-Spit at Tree-Mendus Fruit, near Eau Claire, Mich. His distance: 110 feet, four inches.
- News-Sentinel staff

Though cherries have been an important feature of Lodi's agricultural make-up for generations, exporting the fruit to Japan is a tradition which began only in 1987.

The cherry tree has deep roots in Japanese history and culture. For centuries, the blossoms of the tree have been regarded as symbols of the impermanence of life and, consequently the celebration of life. They are seen as heralds of spring and objects of great beauty.

Although Japan has a deep-rooted appreciation for the cherry tree and its fruit, there is not enough available land to meet the need for the fruit.

"See that tiny country over there?" Sasaki asks, pointing to a world map on the wall of his office at the bent pinkie finger of land that is Japan. "They don't have the room."

Japan has to rely upon imports for a bulk of its cherries. But for years, the nation was reluctant to accept fruit from the U.S. because it might hurt the domestic market, and for fear that Japan would also inadvertently be importing insects capable of doing damage to native Japanese crops.

The codling moth and the cherry fruit fly were among buyers' chief concerns. Though the U.S. market for exports to Japan was opened in 1972, the importation of cherries was not accepted until 1978.

In 1977-78, there was an outbreak of Mediterranean fruit flies on fruit crops in California. Japanese cherry buyers balked at the thought of a medfly being brought in the country and reconsidered U.S. cherry imports altogether.

California agreed not to export cherries to Japan for 10 years so that other states could get the ball rolling. By 1987, California growers were in full swing and cherry production was stronger than ever.

Now Japanese exports account for one-fourth California's total production.

Back in Lodi

Today, things here are returning to normal. Trees that once fluttered under the spry hands of pickers are now bare, plundered of their wealth. The only evidence of the immense task of harvesting are the deep red remains on the dusty ground of cherries that never made it to the picking tubs.

Cherries by the numbers
• San Joaquin County contains about 14,500 acres of cherry trees and harvests about 38,000 tons of cherries annually. That adds up to 4.2 million, 18-pound boxes each year.
• 20 to 25 percent of all cherries produced in the county are shipped to buyers in Japan. Because of the short shelf life of the fruit, shipments are sent via air and arrive in Japan about two to three days after being picked from the tree.
• Of all the sweet cherry varieties grown in the U.S., one-third are from California.
• 25 percent of all U.S. cherries are grown in San Joaquin County.
• California contains approximately 30,000 acres of cherry trees and produces as many as 6 million, 18-pound cartons in a year.
• The state generates as much as $100 million per year from cherry exports; $75 million of that amount is earned by San Joaquin county, alone.
- News-Sentinel staff

East Oak Street is just as Sasaki predicted - a ghost town. Gone are the sounds of forklifts and machinery. The silence of the empty roads is pierced only by the whistle of a nearby train.

It's as if the cherry industry had never been here, had never spanned the distance between the sun-stippled fields of Warmerdam's orchard and the concrete streets of downtown Lodi before heading off to a Japanese grocery store.

But anyone who's ever loved the cherry knows its juice leaves a stain. The cherry industry, in its short time, has left its mark on Lodi. And, that mark will barely have begun to fade by the time the first blossoms burst out on the cherry tree branches of a new spring.

Contact reporter Sara Cardine at intern@lodinews.com.

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