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Cherry plantings are likely to increase in southern California as production increases to meet demand.

The state has 30,000 acres of sweet cherries, according to Jeff Colombini, president of Lodi Farming, Inc., in Stockton, California. About 20,000 acres are in the northern San Joaquin Valley and 8,000 are in the southern part of the valley, which is developing as a cherry-growing region. Another 2,000 acres are planted in other parts of the state, predominantly on the coast and in the Hollister area. California has 28,000 bearing acres.

Sweet cherry production in 2005 did not reach its potential because of several rainstorms that devastated the crop. Only about 3.5 million boxes were shipped, down from around 6 million for each of the previous two years.

Varieties

The Bing variety is declining in importance. In 1997, Bing accounted for 85 percent of the crop. Last season, only 60 percent of the cherries were Bing, and Colombini expects the downward trend to continue. Meanwhile, other varieties, such as Tulare, Brooks, Tieton, Chelan, Index, and Sequoia, are gaining in their popularity.

In the northern San Joaquin Valley, about 50 percent of the trees are on Mahaleb rootstocks, with the next most popular rootstocks being Colt, Mazzard, and Gisela. In the southern part of the valley, 75 percent of the trees are on Colt, and the rest are on Mahaleb or interstems. "The interstem is starting to take off in California," Colombini said. "But there’s a lot of learning to be done."

Though planting of cherries continues, growers face several constraints to profitability.

Lack of research: Dr. Steve Southwick, who did research on cherries, peaches, plums, and pears, left the University of California, Davis, more than a year ago, and his position has not been filled, Colombini said. The university said it would not fill the position until the fruit industries agreed to fund it in full for the next three years.

"There’s no money in California," he said. "The state doesn’t have any extra cash."

Cherries don’t rank among California’s top agricultural crops. Milk is the most important commodity by far, followed by grapes. Cherries rank 37th with a value of $123 million, statistics show.

"They’re not even on the radar," Colombini said. "They’re considered a minor commodity, which is unfortunate because the university is not doing any research that the industry doesn’t fund."

The California Cherry Advisory Board collects about $100,000 per year for research, which he described as a totally inadequate amount for the size of the industry.

Overlapping crops: Another constraint is the overlap of the California crop with the Pacific Northwest’s. This varies from season to season. In 2005, 25 percent of the California crop and 7 percent of the Northwest crop were being marketed at the same time. However, in 2000, 78 percent of the California crop and 51 percent of the Northwest crop overlapped.

Labor costs: Colombini expects labor to become a greater constraint in the future. "I think we’ll see labor rates rise faster than the rate of inflation, and certainly faster than the rate in the increase of commodity prices," he predicted.

Cherries are among the most labor-intensive crops. The total labor input per acre, including harvest payroll, taxes, and workers compensation (17 percent) is about $3,000 per acre for cherries or apples, compared with only $300 for grapes, and $200 for walnuts and olives grown for oil.

Land costs: The rising cost of farmland is a huge constraint to profitability in California, Colombini added. Annual increases in the value of farmland are outstripping increases in farm income, and in many areas the value does not reflect the income-producing capacity of the land. Small parcels have high value as home sites and can sell for $25,000 to $30,000 per acre. Larger parcels might go for $12,000 per acre. "It’s difficult to buy land and have it make economic sense," he reflected.

Regulations: Environmental regulations continue to constrain farmers. For example:

• Cherry prunings can no longer be burned.

  • Farmers are responsible for water runoff monitoring.
  • Operations that create dust are beginning to be regulated.
  • Applicators who treat replant sites with methyl bromide must carry a self-contained breathing apparatus.

"The number of regulations is going to increase, and the cost of doing business in California is going to continue to go up," Colombini said.

Many growers are looking for alternative crops, he added.