Industry expects return to “normal” production season after a late supply glut caused major losses in 2023

The 2023 California cherry season was one the industry would probably just as soon forget. In a normal year, the first fruit of the season should ripen in late-April with shipments winding down by mid-June – in time to get out of the way of the mammoth production from the Pacific Northwest. But that was not last year. 

Harvesting is set to get underway moving into May

Harvesting is set to get underway moving into May

Image: California Cherries

Thanks to a 2023 winter that lasted well into the first several weeks of spring, the California harvest got off to an extremely slow start on what turned out to be a near-record crop.

By the time the last of the California fruit shipped on 3 July, it was well and truly overlapping with the Pacific Northwest season, overwhelming supply channels and the market returned less than half of what it did the season before.

To add to the Northwest’s misery, most of its fruit matured within a six-week period, forcing many growers to abandon orchards with less-than-perfect quality as harvest costs were unlikely to be covered.

“There wasn’t a lot we could do,” said Mark Calder of Primavera Marketing, regarding the seasonal overlap. “We had a record crop on our hands. The fruit was already packed and needed a home.”

Thankfully, according to Calder, the 2024 California cherry deal is shaping up to be vastly different. Despite another wet winter, fruit maturity is tracking more to historical norms and with a shorter crop.

“We have more typical seasonal timing this year,” Calder said. “Some of the earliest varieties could come off by 25 April with steady volume out of the southern San Joaquin Valley by 5 May. However, the northern districts should only be scratching the surface at that point.”

Dave Martin of Stemilt Growers is also expecting a more moderate volume compared with last season.

“Things are looking fairly normal this year,” he said. “The Coral variety should peak between 10 May and 25 May and Bing between 25 May and 10 June and most of the industry feels we’ve got a nice crop on the trees and just moderate volume compared to last season.”

California varieties

Among the 10.1m cartons shipped in 2023 (just 60 cartons short of the record volume set two years ago) Coral was the leading varietal at 4.56m packed cartons, followed by Bing at 2.3m cartons.

Over the last decade, Coral has emerged as an industry cornerstone due to its better resistance against cracking after rainfall as well as its consistent ability to set a crop. The variety is so versatile that it is planted up and down the state’s Central Valley – an expanse of hundreds of kilometres. In contrast, Bing remain predominantly restricted to the northern growing districts around Stockton and Lodi.

However, Calder said the California industry is still looking for a variety to complement Bing.

“Coral is a decent variety, but they have difficulty retaining their stems after a certain amount of time,” he says. “Black Pearl is an interesting possibility. It has good sizing and colour, and we should see more of these over the next several years as the industry experiments with trials on them.”

But, said Calder, Bing still generates the most excitement. “It remains the preferred variety in Asia.”