Sweet cherry industries in the Pacific Northwest and California may be a thousand miles apart, but they have much in common. The two industries share sales management teams, crop information, research funding, and are working together to develop consumer messages conveying the health aspects of sweet cherries.
"With computer technology, data can be shared instantly, and with private planes, we’re only two hours away from each other," said Tom Gotelli of O-G Packing Company in Stockton, California. Gotelli, who frequently attends the Northwest Cherry Institute and research reviews of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, said there are no longer secrets between the two regions. "We’re watching them while they’re watching us."
For the last several years, the marketing team of O-G Packing, Grower Direct Marketing LLC, has physically moved to Washington’s Yakima Valley as cherry production shifts from California to the Northwest, selling cherries for the Western Sweet Cherry Group. Grower Direct Marketing is the exclusive marketer for stem-free cherries grown by such Washington producers as Bob Harris, Denny and Randy Hayden, and Lowell Lancaster. When cherries are in season in the Southern Hemisphere, Grower Direct handles cherries from Chile and Argentina, according to its Web site.
The Gotelli family has grown cherries in northern California for more than 50 years under the name of Joe Gotelli and Sons. Joe is Tom’s grandfather. The multigenerational business includes brothers Al and Del Gotelli, Al’s sons Tom and Pat and son-in-law Guy Cotton, and Del’s son Paul. The Gotelli family does not disclose acreage numbers, but the company is known to be one of the largest cherry growers and packers in California, shipping well over a million boxes of cherries during a normal season.
The packing and cold storage facility, which sits on about 70 acres, includes two 16-lane cherry sorting lines, one 12-lane line, a separate Rainier packing line, and a dedicated line and fumigation chambers for exports. During peak season, it’s not uncommon for 40 trucks to be lined up for unloading. The facility is so large that management uses bicycles to go from building to building.
"In 53 years, we’ve gone from hand packing our cherries to packing lines that take up two acres," Tom said, noting that his father invented the first mechanical cluster cutter to separate the stems of cherries. Although their facility uses state-of-the-art equipment to sort and size cherries and pack them in various packages, including clamshells, bags, and bulk, Tom is anxiously awaiting the commercialization of optical sorting technology that will sort for color and quality.
Optical sorting is used for other commodities like apples, and the Gotellis use it on their blueberry line, but Tom said that the technology is not yet fast enough to sort the volume of cherries that go over their lines. "We’re dumping about 3 bins of cherries per minute on our lines," he said, explaining that one machine would need to sort 1,200 pounds of cherries per minute.
O-G Packing, through its Grower Direct Marketing sales arm, is one of two California-Washington alliances that are bringing the two regions closer together. California’s Chinchiolo Fruit Company of Stockton joined forces with Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee, Washington, in 2003, about the same time that Grower Direct Marketing and the stemfree cherry pioneers in Washington connected.
Marketing Washington cherries is something that Tom, his father, and his uncle had thought about for years. "But now with communication technology and airplanes, we can be there in two hours," he said, adding that the additional cherry sales have helped increase their revenues and allowed them to expand into new growing regions like Bakersfield.
Tom believes that the close link is valuable for both regions. Industry leaders from both states recently began meeting to discuss how to better work together in mutually beneficial areas like promotion, research, and labor. "In some areas, it makes more sense to work together than double-doing projects," Tom said.
Representatives of the two regions plan to meet again in the fall to discuss coordinated promotions focusing on the health benefits of eating sweet cherries.
Unlike their northern counterparts, California cherry growers are not looking to extend their cherry season with late varieties. Varieties ripening after Bing would only increase overlap with the Northwest region. Instead, growers are focused on starting earlier by planting the early season varieties of Brooks, Tulare, and the Sequoia series in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Of the 7 million tons of cherries expected to be harvested this year in California, about 2.5 million were projected to be Tulare and Brooks. Growers do not pay promotion assessments to the California Cherry Advisory Board for Tulare and Brooks cherries, although industry members discuss the issue every few years.
Cherry trees in the southern district frequently have difficulty accumulating enough winter chill hours and suffer from erratic bloom and poor fruit set.
"It’s feast or famine with the early varieties," said Tom, adding that they have grown early varieties in the southern part of the valley for 13 years. "Last year, you would have gone broke if that’s all you had."
He noted that of all their years growing cherries in the southern district, about half of the crops were good in terms of yield. "And you hope that you don’t get rain on those half," he said, adding that the Bakersfield area tends to receive more rain than the Lodi district.
The Gotelli family diversified into blueberries more than a decade ago. Blueberries are extremely expensive to plant because the soil pH and soil profile must be manipulated, and they require a lot of water, Tom explained. But the fruit, popular for their health benefits, are "becoming a bigger part of our program." Blueberries are packed at the same time as cherries, but only require about 30 people.
To better utilize the cold storage rooms that house the cherry packing lines and store packed fruit, they empty out the rooms at the end of the season, removing the lines to provide cold storage space to peach processors. It takes about five weeks to remove the equipment and about five months to reinstall them.