Steven Murray, Sr., left, and his son Steven, Jr., picked the first commercial cherries in California, and the nation, on April 15. Most of their cherries are exported to Japan.

Steven Murray, Sr., left, and his son Steven, Jr., picked the first commercial cherries in California, and the nation, on April 15. Most of their cherries are exported to Japan.

In tree fruit, timing can mean the difference between exceptional prices and average prices, and it’s usually the early variety and districts that reap the ­benefits. There’s early, and then there’s early.

Nobody is earlier than Murray Family Farms in Arvin, California, which claims to be the first in the United States each year to pick sweet cherries for commercial markets. This year, their cherry harvest got into full swing on April 15 with Royal Lee, Early Sweet, Brooks, and a few minor pollinizer varieties.

Steven Murray, Jr., who farms 360 acres of cherries, stone fruit, citrus, grapes, and blueberries with his father, credits location, use of overhead sprinklers to increase winter chilling, and a "bit of luck" for having the first ­cherries in the nation each year.

About 75 percent of their production is exported to Japan by Prima Frutta Packing, Inc., of Linden, California, and marketed by Primavera Marketing. The remaining fruit are shipped to domestic markets or sold in their two direct-farm markets.

"Our direct markets do well with cherries because they are the only sources for cherries at that time of the year," Murray said, adding that they have a strong, local constituency that supports their markets. One market is on their farm in Arvin, which is 20 miles southeast of ­Bakersfield and situated near a major highway route to Las Vegas.

The other market is located along Interstate 5, the primary route from northern California to Los Angeles and other southern California cities.

Their cherry orchards are usually about five days earlier than others in the Arvin area, although two neighbors have early orchards that start picking right behind the Murrays.

Volatile prices

Prices are very high but extremely volatile for the first cherries of the season. Prices for the Brooks variety can range from $80 to $180 depending on the quality and projected supplies. Murray said that they expected their first Brooks to bring around $100 per box (18-pound box).

"Prices are high for just a few days until the volume of cherries picks up," he said. "We’re the only ones with cherries for the first few days. But when volume starts to pick up, prices can drop $50 to $100 within hours."

Average prices for their pollinizing ­varieties are around $65 per box, he added.

Yields of the early varieties reflect the challenges of doubles and poor fruit set that cherry growers in warm climates face. Murray explained that their packouts are generally lower than those of other cherry production regions, with average yields ranging from 300 to 500 boxes per acre (equivalent to 2.7 to 4.5 tons per acre).

Early district pioneer

Murray’s father, Steven, Sr., planted the family’s first cherries 15 years ago. He was among the first to plant cherries in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley, starting with 20 acres of Brooks and Tulare in the foothills of Arvin. Since then, varieties have been added and removed so that today they grow 19 different cherry varieties—but no Bings. The Sequoia line of early season cherries is among their newest variety additions.

In the winter months, they turn on overhead sprinklers in the cherry orchards when temperatures are above 55°F to gain chilling hours. They also take care in choosing stone fruit varieties that have low chilling requirements.

Dormex (hydrogen cyanamide) is sprayed in early January to promote more uniform bud break and overcome lack of chilling.

Close connections with nurserymen Bruce Frost and Marty Vitale have helped the Murrays keep their variety mix current with the latest releases. The Murrays maintain a trial of new varieties for Frost in exchange for trees and firsthand information about new selections.