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IN SEASON

Get Set for a Cherry Jubilee

April 29, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Is California on the brink of being swamped by a flood of cherries? Not this year, but maybe next.

Cherry plantings in California have increased from about 12,000 acres in 1988 to about 19,000 today.

But this spring's crazy weather held down pollination, leading to predictions of a 1998 California harvest of about 27,000 tons, compared to last year's 31,500 tons.

Still, plantings are way up, and the potential for a monster harvest is real.

What prompted the increase in plantings? Simple: the ability to sell cherries in Japan. Depending on the year, anywhere from 40% to 80% of the California harvest is shipped overseas.

"Once we got the approval for Japan, there was an immediate renewed interest in cherry planting," says Jim Culbertson of the California Cherry Advisory Board. "It doesn't take growers long to sniff out something someone is making money on and start planting it."

On the other hand, the Asian economic crisis has some farmers worried. "It's hard to predict how that's going to go," says Culbertson. "The value of the dollar to the yen is about the same as a year ago, and I think prices actually are going to be a little lower.

"It really depends on how the financial markets impact the consumer in Japan and how they react. Even if someone has the same job they had last year and they're making the same money, are they going to be spending money on cherries, or are they going to think they should save? We don't know."

The answer will start to become clear next week when the first California cherries begin to trickle in. Those will come from the warm-weather growing area around Arvin in the southern San Joaquin Valley. From there the harvest will move north into Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties. The Bing cherry harvest will begin around May 12, and the whole deal will wrap up around June 20.

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