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Recent downpours dampen local cherry harvest

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Posted: Friday, May 20, 2005 10:00 pm

Rain is taking a toll on crops of cherries in and around Lodi. Growers, packers and agriculture officials alike say the rain that has fallen in recent weeks is leading to lesser quantities of the fragile fruit.

The marketing of cherries relies heavily on the fruit having a near-flawless appearance. But as cherries ripen on the tree, they increasingly absorb moisture from rain and swell until their lustrous skins crack.

Cherries that crack can't be sold.

With the cherry harvest in full swing, the recent rains could not have come at a more inopportune time for the county's roughly $100 million cherry industry.

"The rain during this time of year is the worst possible thing that can happen to cherry crops," San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Scott Hudson said.

At the Stockton warehouses of OG Packing, cherry sorters and forklifts work side-by-side at a dizzying pace. About 1,000 people are at the warehouses on a given day during the eight-week harvest season.

That number or employees can swell by 40 percent when the cherry crop is damaged by rain, said Tom Gotelli, who grows cherries, runs OG Packing and sells the fruit. More workers are needed to sort out the bad cherries.

A rain-damaged crop can lead not only to less fruit, but higher labor costs, too.

"When it's good it's good -- and when it's bad it's ugly," Gotelli said.

Next week, Tom Gotelli will begin harvesting Bing cherries, the variety that makes up the majority of the 14,000 acres of cherries grown in the county. Bing cherries can derive premium prices in foreign and domestic markets if their appearance pleases a buyer's eye.


Sorters at the OG Packing plant in Stockton weed out the cracked and green cherries as they speed by on a conveyer belt. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

That eye-pleasing ability hinges on good weather at harvest time.

"It's tough when we have so much rain like we have. It doesn't help," said Gotelli, who has cherry orchards in Lodi and other parts of the Central Valley.

The weather has been equally hard on businesses whose sole focus is exporting cherries.

"We've been struggling since (the rain) started, and the rain hasn't given the cherries the opportunity to get to full production," said Ken Sasaki, general manager of Lodi Export Corporation. "It's kind of been hampering the quantities that we're handling right now," Sasaki said.

This season the export company is seeing about 30 to 40 percent less in quantities of Brooks, Tulare and Garnet cherries come through its doors to be shipped to Japan, Australia and Korea. Sasaki said his company aims to fill 200,000 18-pound packages of cherries each season.

"(The rain) keeps us from meeting our expectations," Sasaki said.

The Brooks, Tulare and Garnet varieties are harvested earlier than Bing cherries.

Cherry buyers in this country and overseas put a premium on the fruit's exterior appearance, said Kenny Watkins, president of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau.

By the numbers

Cherry crop values in San Joaquin County:
2004: $98 million
2003: $110 million
2002: $70 million
2001: $99 million
2000: $82 million

-- Source: San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner's Office.

"In our society, (cherries) have to look good more than they have to taste good to sell them. That's even more prevalent in Japan," Watkins said.

Last Wednesday, a Chinese delegation was touring the area's cherry-growing areas.

The price at which cherries sell depends on a variety of factors, including strength of foreign and domestic markets, size, quality and packaging, Watkins said.

Growers have found ways that help thwart the effect rain has on cherries. Some will pay hundreds of dollars to have a helicopter hover over groves to dry out cherry trees after a rain. Others, including Gotelli, spray trees with calcium to add a little strength to the skins.


Tom Gotelli holds cherries damaged by the recent rains. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

A few good days of warm, sunny weather after a harvest-time rain can return conditions to normal, Hudson said. The warmer temperatures dry the moisture from the skin of the cherries.

Cherries do best with 80-degree days with nighttime temperatures that dip below 50 degrees, according to Gotelli.

But all in the cherry industry find themselves doing one thing at harvest time: Wishing for clear skies.

"Hopefully, we're not looking at another cycle of bad, rainy weather," Sasaki said.

Contact reporter Jake Armstrong at jakea@lodinews.com.

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