Bruce Frost is one of several California growers looking for new cherry varieties that handle the heat better and also produce earlier. This test variety, 51-011 on Gisela 12 is planted on Frost's Acorn Farms ranch near Bakersfield, California on March 9, 2016. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
California growers are looking for new cherry varieties that better handle heat and can be harvested earlier. This test variety is planted on Bruce Frost’s Acorn Farms ranch near Bakersfield, California. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

It took decades, but California growers now have more early ripening cherry varieties that withstand heat and dwindling winter chill. More may be on the way.

From Early Glen to Royal Tioga to the Oh-So-Grand, growers have an array of choices in new cherries to fill the early market, while more are being tested every year.

“The No. 1 thing what’s driving these type of varieties is they ripen in the early season,” said Glen Bradford, a partner in BQ Genetics in Le Grand, California, one of three private California breeding companies.

Developments over the past 10 years have Golden State growers enthusiastic about the industry’s future in spite of poor yields in 2014 and 2015 due to low winter chilling, heat waves and drought.

“You’re always looking for something that’s an improvement over existing varieties,” said Greg Costa, a Lodi grower and packer who has test plots of varieties he declined to name.

Early to market

In California, timing is money.

Southern cherry growers and shippers can’t compete with the volumes of Oregon and Washington, so they shoot for the seasonal excitement, hitting the market ahead of the Northwest. Prices typically start high and plummet quickly.

“We know that we can improve on what we have, especially in our early districts,” said Mike Collins of Chinchiolo Stemilt, the California division of the Wenatchee, Washington, fruit giant.

Bing cherries were once king in the Central Valley. The Bing is still the most prevalent variety in the state, but it comprised only 40 percent of the 2015 crop volume compared with 66 percent 10 years earlier, according to the California Cherry Board.

One of the first cherries to surge in its place was the the Brooks, probably the most popular variety in the southern counties of California near Bakersfield, where winter chill is so scarce growers use overhead sprinklers to cool in December and January.

In the 1970s, the University of California-Davis discontinued a cherry breeding program that dated back to 1934 for lack of funding.

However, Davis researchers continued to work on their varieties and released the Brooks in 1984. The cherry matures about four days ahead of the Bing and develops fewer doubles and spurs in the southern regions.

The Coral Champagne, usually just called the Coral, is another popular early variety from the University of California.

Together, the Brooks and Coral accounted for one-third of the state’s cherry crop in 2015.
Since then private breeders have taken up the torch.

Cherries are a relatively small crop in California with roughly 40,000 acres compared with millions of acres of grapes and nuts.

“It is a race for us,” said Bradford, one of three private cherry breeders in California. They all also breed peaches, grapes and other crops.

In 2000, Bradford introduced the Glenred variety, which skyrocketed in popularity under the trade name Sequoia. Warmerdam Packing near Tulare, which has exclusive packing rights, produced 257,000 18-pound boxes in 2015, 23 times the volume of 2005.

Since then, he has released three more commercial varieties, the Arvin Glen, the Early Glen and the Glen Heart, all with varying improvements over the Sequoia. Warmerdam has exclusive rights to those, too.

Trial and error

Plant breeding is a slow process with more failure than success.

Bradford and Warmerdam plant about 10 varieties in test blocks each year, hoping just one makes it into commercial production, and many of those don’t stand the test of time. He estimates one out of every 5,000 attempts becomes a “success.”

About an hour north, Zaiger Genetics in Modesto has a similar story.

When Floyd Zaiger started, experimental early season varieties produced cherries the size of peas, said Leith Gardner, his daughter and family partner. Those early years of trial and error are now starting to pay off.

“The reason why we’re having success is because my father started it 50 years ago,” Gardner said.

Each year, she and her testing collaborators plant 3,000 to 4,000 cherry seedlings. Only about 50 of those make it to another round of testing.

Among Zaiger’s new varieties in the past five years are the Royal Tioga, Royal Lynn and Royal Hazel. (Gardner has a lot of aunts and names cherries after them.)

They typically bloom in the last week of February, earlier than Bings. They also produced relatively normal volumes in 2014 and 2015, a period when yields for traditional varieties were down, she said.

Gardner claims her successful varieties have similar bloom times and success anywhere in the state. “If I can’t get them to fruit in all kinds of conditions, I cut them off.”

Cherries year-round?

Some growers near Stockton, where 70 percent of the state’s crop is produced, think these new varieties may slow what has been the industry’s steady march to the south, where intense summer heat causes the buds to double postharvest.

That doesn’t mean the southward movement will halt, though.

Cherries are narrowly adapted, said David Cain, general manager of International Fruit Genetics, meaning most varieties will perform their best in a specific climate.

Untapped areas lie still farther south, even into Mexico, and he is trying to breed varieties that will work there. He suspects that trend to continue until the market can be filled year-round with fresh cherries grown in both hemispheres.

“There’s a three-week time where there are no cherries in the world, and we’re trying to fill that gap,” said Cain, who started his business in 2001 after collecting start wood from all over the world. He and his California competitors also experiment with varieties in Washington and British Columbia.

Cain has three varieties nearing a patent, he said, but has applied for only one, the Oh-So-Grand. He expects it to ripen about three days ahead of the Brooks, with about the same chilling level but larger fruit and darker flesh.

His other two, which he declined to name, would require even fewer chilling units than the Brooks and break dormancy without the help of Dormex (hydrogen cyanamide), a commonly used product in the south to compensate for low chill.

He and the other breeders have developed many lines to that effect. The trick is to cross them with desirable traits such as size, firmness, crack-resistance and, of course, flavor.

For example, he has test varieties that will grow in Mexico now. “You wouldn’t want to eat them,” he said with a laugh.
But someday you might. •

Private breeders

Since the University of California-Davis closed its cherry breeding program in the 1970s, three private breeders in California have led the search for new varieties.

Here are a few details from two private breeders, BQ Genetics and Zaiger Genetics, about their varieties commercially released in the past eight years. The third, International Fruit Genetics, has patents still pending.

—BQ Genetics of Le Grand, California, is best known for the Sequoia, released in 2000. Partner Glen Bradford compared three more recent varieties to the Sequoia.

2011: The dark red Arvin Glen harvests about the same time as the Sequoia, but grows bigger and firmer. It requires roughly the same amount of chill and, like the Sequoia, has an average crack resistance. Size: 8.5-9 row. Brix: 20.

2012: The Early Glen, a bright red cherry, beats the Sequoia to ripening by a week and is firmer. Chill is about the same but it is more susceptible to rain cracking. Size: 9.5 row. Brix: 22.

2013: The dark red Glen Heart ripens about three days ahead of the Sequoia and is firmer. It is more heat tolerant, but has similar size and chill requirements. Size: 9.5 row. Brix: 18-20.

All three, like the Sequoia, are under an exclusive contract with Warmerdam Packing. Warmerdam is testing all three of them in the Northwest, as well as some unnamed, unpatented cultivars.

One of those unnamed varieties is showing a lot of promise, though Bradford would not share specifics. None of them have trouble with doubles and spurs. The Sequoia did not perform well in the Northwest.

—Zaiger Genetics of Modesto, California, is well known for a line of Royal cherries. Leith Gardner, a partner in the family business, compared her company’s three latest varieties to the Brooks, a 1984 University of California-Davis release.

2008: The bright red Royal Lynn matures seven days ahead of the Brooks. It’s firmer than the Brooks but produces a few doubles and spurs. The Lynn pollinates for the Royal Hazel. Size: 10-row. Brix: 17-18.

2009: The Royal Hazel has the same dark red color as the Brooks but ripens four or five days earlier and is as firm or firmer. It also will produce a few doubles and spurs if not protected from heat stress, even more than the Lynn.

Growers are testing the Hazel in Washington and have called Gardner asking for graft wood. “So my assumption is they are doing well,” she said. Size: 9.5-10 row. Brix: 19.

2012: The Royal Tioga, a bright red cherry, ripens an entire two weeks ahead of the Brooks. It’s not as firm as the Brooks, which is known for firmness.

It showed little rain cracking in Gardner’s test orchard in Modesto, even with no treatments. She is unsure if anyone in the Northwest is testing it. It has produced doubles with the heat stress of the Bakersfield area but not in Modesto. Size: 10-10.5 row. Brix: 16-17.

—by Ross Courtney