Sweet jubilee

California’s varied cherry season closes with June’s Bing bounty

Ah Bing.

Ah Bing.

Responsible fruit growers seek shelf life, but passionate fruit growers seek sugar. Sadly, responsibility and passion don’t always mix—and in the world of supermarket fruits, cherries may be hard and red, with no blemishes or bruises but no sweeter than so many marbles.

But Bob White waits to harvest his cherries until they hit a full 18 brix on the refractometer, a handheld device that sends a beam of light through a drop of juice and determines by the degree of refraction the fruit’s sugar content.

“You’re lucky to find 11 1/2 brix at the supermarket, maybe 12, but I hate to say that you might even find 10 brix or less,” says White, who farms six acres of cherries on his Orland property. His focus lies on especially early ripening varieties. The Brooks cherry comes first (usually around May 10) and his others—the Tulare, Black Ebony, Royal Rainier and Sweetheart cherries—ripen in the month that follows. Now, in fact, White is done for the season. Growing such early fruit, he explains, is a business strategy.

“I like to be out of the market by the time the bulk of the crop is coming in,” says White, who sold his cherries at Chico’s Saturday farmers’ market until mid-June. “There’s just too much competition at the farmers’ market in June.”

Mark Johnson sells at farmers’ markets, but he is transitioning into a you-pick business, and for one more weekend at his Gridley farm he’ll be welcoming guests to drop in via Evans Reimer Road off of Highway 99 to pick their own Bing and Lapin cherries. The price is $1.80 per pound.

“That’s the cheapest cherries around, but you have to pick them yourself,” he says.

The West Coast cherry industry began around 1850, when one Henderson Lewelling, a nurseryman from Iowa, and his brother Seth settled in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and began breeding this littlest of stone fruits. One of their creations was particularly crisp and sweet. They named it after one of their friends in the trade, a Chinese assistant named Ah Bing.

Today, the Bing is king, constituting some 95 percent of California’s 27,000 cherry acres, grown mostly in the Delta. This is mono-cropping in peak form. However, small growers keep lesser-known varieties in production. Johnson, for example, also grows, among his Bings and Lapins, Tartarian and Rainier cherries, both of which have finished for the season. Other lesser-known varieties include the Mona, Merton Heart, Merton Premiere and Burbank cherries.

As far south as the San Joaquin Valley, Bings grow less favorably. When tested in the region several decades ago, they experienced a heat-related condition called “cherry doubling,” caused by a split embryo. Jim Doyle helped solve this matter. A famed fruit breeder who has helped develop many stone fruits and figs, Doyle, of Roseville, assisted several partners in creating the Brooks cherry during the 1970s. Finally patented in 1989, the Brooks, says Doyle, not only resists doubling but in the San Joaquin Valley it ripens as early as April—a lucrative niche market challenged by no other cherry region in North America.

At our local markets and roadside stands, expect cherries through early July—and expect a lot, because this year’s crop, according to reports from the California Farm Bureau Federation, has been a bumper. A good thing in most respects—lots of cheap cherries—for farmers it can mean complicated economics and lower prices. Too big a surplus could even lead to removal of acreage, and no one likes to see a fruit tree get the axe. But the solution is as simple as it is sweet: Save a tree. Eat a cherry.