It’s been a bad year for many stone fruit growers in California. Mother Nature made their lives difficult by bringing them a warm autumn, not enough chill in the early winter and too much cold in the late winter.
How that shakes out tonnage-wise for individual crops remains to be seen given the number of factors involved, including declining acreage.
Apricots, for one, could see a very light crop year in all varieties, said Bill Ferriera, president of Apricot Producers of California, attributing this assessment to a combination of factors, including last fall’s higher-than-average temperatures.
“We have problems if it stays warm when it gets into November,” he said. “Apricots require chilling and the right timing. We just didn’t have enough chilling when we needed it.”
The weather created problems for an industry already suffering a downward trend; acreage has declined, with many growers shifting to almonds largely due to market demand, and the hand-harvested fruit is labor intensive, he noted.
The Patterson apricot is the most popular variety, accounting for about 75 to 80 percent of total apricot production. It is used for canning, freezing, baby food and juice.
“Ours are all Patterson apricots,” said Daniel Bays, a partner at Bays Ranch Inc., which grows 400 acres of apricots. He reported that this year’s crop, which would be harvested at the beginning of June, was “spotty from field to field.” Even individual trees showed inconsistencies. “Some trees never flowered out all at once,” he said.
“We average between 10 and 12 tons per acre,” he said. “Last year, it was down to between 6 and 7 tons. We’ll probably be the same this year.
“I would attribute this to the number of chill hours in wintertime,” he added. “I don’t think we ever got the chill hours that would get the trees into dormancy. It was 60 to 70 degrees in the day. They never got a good dormancy.”
This has also been a bad year for peaches, but some peach growers had better luck than others.
“The varieties I have are normal,” reported Frank Bavaro, owner of Bavaro Ranches, which grows cling peaches in Escalon, California. “But the weather conditions with the cold snap made it a bit of an uneven maturity.”
He knows that he fared much better than other growers in the state.
“The Stanislaus and Klamath have a problem — especially the Stanislaus — with not enough chilling time,” he said. “We had a fairly normal set, but the people up north had more severe problems. (Trees in) Linden had hail damage, with extremely large-size hail that took pieces out. They’re going to have a tough time.
“In our area, the Escalon-Modesto area, we were fortunate,” he said, explaining that local peach crops had less damage than crops in northern California. “They were (maturing) five to seven days ahead of us. They were more advanced so they were more vulnerable. We weren’t in full bloom, but they were. A few days make a big difference in maturity.”
Some people in the industry are still optimistic about this year’s fruit crops.
“We’re expecting a healthy season for all four varietals,” said Ian LeMay, director of member relations and communications for the California Fruit Association, about this year’s peach, plum, nectarine and apricot crops. “The fruit we’re seeing on the tree looks good. As with all ag, we’re subject to weather conditions, but as it looks now, our stone fruit growers are feeling good about this year.”
However, LeMay gave a different outlook for cherries.
“Cherries definitely are going to have a lighter crop this year,” LeMay said. “They have definitely been impacted by cooler temperatures in February, which affected bloom and pollination. Freezes in February impacted bee activity.”
“We lost a crop,” said Jesse Mendoza, co-owner of J&J Ag, about his 16 acres of cherry trees in Sanger, California. He blamed “a variety of things,” but the reasons he offered were all weather-related.
“Heat is a big concern,” he said, explaining that extreme heat can create deformities such as double cherries and spurs. “We had over 100-degree weather for 28 to 30 days last summer. Then you had no chill in December and January. Then February came along and we had a week when we were below 30 degrees and the fruit buds froze.”
Cherries need an early winter chill to go dormant, but a February freeze can harm the fruit, as it did for many California growers.
Richard Cotton of Grown Direct Marketing, a Stockton, California-based company that markets cherries and other fruit, agreed it’s been a difficult year. He estimated that cherry production will be down from a typical 10 million cases annually to 3 or 4 million cases this year.
As with stone fruit, some cherry growers were able to weather the temperatures better than others.
Mirizzi Farms in Visalia, California, which grows a variety of fruit, including 5 acres of Royal Tioga cherries, did well with its current cherry crop.
“We lucked out and had a great full bloom,” said its farm manager, Cameron Kaplan, who bills himself as “Cam the Cherry Man” at local events such as the Visalia Farmers Market. He noted that other varieties, such as the Tulare, didn’t even bloom for some growers.
“The Royal Tioga is self-pollinating,” he said. “They don’t rely on bees.”
Steve Murray, owner of Murray Family Farms, which grows fruit on both sides of Highway 58 east of Bakersfield, California, did pretty well with his orchards that sit at 660 to 915 feet — a higher elevation in the region.
His early peach, apricot and nectarine crops were “hammered” by the weather.
“Plums, pluots and other mid-to-late fruit had a normal season,” he said. “It was the early ones that got hit.”
But the elevation helped most of his cherries to avoid the freeze. He also credits the advice he received from a speaker at the recent International Fruit Tree Association summer tour in New Zealand with helping to save his crop. He was told that if he couldn’t supply enough water through his overhead sprinklers to not use them at all.
“What I did right was that I didn’t take action,” he said with a laugh. •
— by Steve Pastis, a freelance writer and editor based in Visalia, California.