Cherries on top

The sweet, red candy of spring seems to always be in season

Spring’s Bing bounty.

Spring’s Bing bounty.

PHOTO by connie cassidy

Cherries ripen in April in the San Joaquin Valley and as late as August in the Pacific Northwest. If we add cherries from Chile, we can count on having the shiniest, reddest of tree fruits in stores fully half the year.

But for committed locavores and seasonal eaters, May and June are high season for Sacramento Valley cherries. In Orland, farmer Bob White grows a handful of cherry varieties on six acres and has been selling his fruit for weeks at Chico’s farmers’ markets. However, White grows mostly early ripening varieties and his harvest is all but finished. White says cherries are especially profitable early in the season—April and May—when many people come clamoring to his market stall with wads of cash to taste the year’s first cherries.

That’s why White doesn’t bother growing later-ripening varieties, such as the ubiquitous Bing. In fact, White is pulling out several dozen BlackPearl and Skeena cherry trees, varieties which bear fruit through June.

Photo By Jason Cassidy

“By that time, I’m tired of cherries and so are a lot of people,” he said.

Yet, cherries—arguably among the world’s most flawless fruits—will always be popular, and will still appear at local farmers’ markets for at least a few more weeks. Even now, after six weeks of California cherries, prices are as high as ever in retail outlets. Nick Matteis, associate director of the California Cherry Board in Sacramento, says he recently saw cherries selling for $6.99 a pound at a major Sacramento retailer. “That’s just unreal,” said Matteis, who nonetheless bought a sack. “That’s an amazing return for any fruit.” At S&S Produce in Chico, cherries were selling for $4.99 a pound last week. The Chico Natural Foods Cooperative, meanwhile, had cherries tagged at $5.99 per pound.

Cherries can pull big money, but White notes that the fruit is a particularly high-risk crop and not always profitable. Though he produces nothing else on his land and is a committed cherry farmer, White jokes that he’s not sure why anyone would choose to invest new roots in the cherry industry—which many farmers are doing in the San Joaquin Valley, where acreage is expanding. A splattering of spring rainfall can cause cherries to swell and split, ruining the crop, he says. And a hailstorm can bruise and destroy every cherry in an orchard. Pests can be a huge problem, too.

“Everything that likes to eat anything likes to eat cherries,” White said. That means birds, squirrels, insects, and mold-making fungi.

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Though the California crop is still coming in, estimates have already been made on the total 2013 harvest. Matteis said it’s been a “decently good” year, with official forecasts predicting 8.1 million 18-pound boxes. That’s down from 2010’s harvest of 9 million boxes, but way up from 2008’s meager 3-million-box return.

“We had good weather on our side [this year], but we did have a lighter crop than we might have had,” Matteis said.

Nine cherry trees out of every 10 in America’s commercial orchards, which lie mostly in Washington, Oregon and California, are of the large Bing variety, a heavy-bearing type that originated in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the 1850s. In lesser quantities, dozens of varieties grow. Some to watch for include Brooks, Lapin, Merton Heart, Merton Premiere, Mona, Burbank and Coral Champagne. A cornucopia of flavors? Possibly.

But Matteis says a person would need to be a “cherry connoisseur” to distinguish one cherry from the next in a blind tasting. Nearly all are red, shiny, sweet and crisp. The Rainier—a yellowish-pink cherry with translucent flesh when it ripens in June—is an exception.

Cherries may be almost universally loved, and they surely qualify as a healthful food—yet Matteis says the industry has nonetheless been hunting for a solid health claim to claim as its own, but there isn’t one yet. While walnuts are selling at record rates thanks to hype about heart-healthy oils, blueberries due to being praised as a super-source of antioxidants, and olive oil because of publicity about its polyphenol content and supposed life-lengthening properties, cherries have no such health claims backed by science.

“We’re looking for a specific attribute that would lead to better health in people who eat them,” Matteis said.

Thing is, it doesn’t take fancy marketing to sell cherries—just a table at the market and a heap of the shiniest, reddest fruit that grows, from Chile to Chico.