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IN SEASON

1995 California Cherries: The Pits

June 01, 1995|RUSS PARSONS

If you blinked, you missed the 1995 California cherry harvest. Technically, there are still another two weeks or so to go, but your odds of seeing any state-grown fruit are pretty long--unless, of course, you go to Japan.

While last year's crop was a record 3.8 million (18-pound) cases, this year's is expected to finish out at less than 650,000. And between 80% and 85% of those will go to Japan, where California cherries are fetching upward of $125 a case. Last year's wholesale price at this point was around $18.

First there were the winter storms, and all that cold, damp weather came right when the trees should have been being pollinated. Even after that, however, the harvest was predicted to be some 1.7 million cases. The capper came over Mother's Day weekend with three more days of cold, wet weather just as the fruit was finishing ripening.

"When you get rain at that point, you get skin splitting," says Jim Culbertson, of the California Cherry Advisory Board. "Basically the cherry skin can't expand as fast as the inside is able to take up water and it splits. It doesn't look good and the fruit decays very rapidly."

The Japanese have long been big fans of California cherries, but the demand from Japan is felt most acutely during short years. In last year's record harvest, for example, the Japanese market accounted for only 25% to 28% of sales. But in 1993, when there were only 1.4 million cases available, Japan's share was nearly 70%.

If you have to have cherries, you're going to have to wait until the Pacific Northwest season begins in a couple of weeks. This year's Northwest harvest is projected to be nearly as big as last year's, though at this point it's difficult to predict where prices will be.

"Cherries are called the gambler's fruit," says Culbertson. "When you hit it right, you can make good money on them. But this year is pretty pathetic."

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