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Cherries, Damaged on Trees by Rain, Now Fetching High Price : Even with healthy harvests from Oregon and Washington coming in, high prices may linger due to demand from Asia.


Cherries are making their all-too-brief appearance at the marketplace and, as lovers of these sweet gems know, this season's harvest has produced mixed results.

The Stockton area--home to most of the state's cherry production--was hit by rain just before picking was to commence. The timing could not have been worse. The cherries drink up the excess moisture like a sponge, the fruit balloons, then splits to relieve the mounting inner pressure.

Because the damaged fruit is deemed useless for grocery store sales, supplies of marketable cherries have been pinched.

As a result, fruit fit for sale--though still not considered premium quality--is fetching a hefty price, hovering around $3.50 per pound.

Now some cause for optimism: Current market conditions could begin to improve in about a week when California's production will be supplemented by Oregon and Washington harvests, which "are looking fine," said John Choumas Sr. of Los Angeles-based Choumas Produce, a major cherry distributor.

Although you will be able to purchase higher-quality fruit, prices won't subside--at least for now. Despite increased supplies, "prices are expected to be at a premium at first," Choumas said.

A major factor for this is Asia's ravenous appetite for cherries. A great deal of the highest-quality fruit is snatched up by Japan and other countries. This is where growers command an exorbitant wholesale price.

The price you ultimately pay at the register will greatly depend on how much of the fruit is shipped overseas, Choumas said: "If a lot doesn't go to the Orient, it will result in stronger supplies here."

Fruit from Northwest harvests will continue to be available for two to three months, Choumas said.

At area farmers markets, expect cherry supplies to begin tapering off around mid-June. That's not long considering that they first landed just a couple of weeks ago.

The cherry season is a fleeting one, said Carl Dutra, a Stockton-area grower.

"The fruit grows and ripens very fast," said Dutra, who logs hundreds of miles each week hauling his fruit to Southern California. From blossom to harvest, Dutra said, cherries are one of the quickest fruits to mature.

Several varieties are offered at area farmers markets.

The king of cherries, the Bing, wins kudos with customers for its superior firmness and sweet, juicy flesh.

Other varieties include the Jubilee, a heart-shaped variety similar in texture and taste to the Bing and not often seen in the chain stores; the Burlat, a Bing look-alike with sweet, soft texture; the Larian, very sweet with yellowish-white, soft texture; the Black Tartarian, soft in texture with high sugar content, and the Ranier, sweet, firm, white with a blush of red.

Though cherries have a short shelf life, you can extend their freshness with proper care. Don't wash or handle the cherries unless you are about to eat them. Store your supply in the fridge.

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