Business

Monday, May 14 2012 05:08 PM

Commercial cherry orchards decimated by bad weather

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Juvencio Ramirez picks Tulare cherries at Murray Family Farms on Monday morning.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    A tractor unloads freshly picked Tulare cherries at Murray Family Farms on Monday morning. From there the cherries are stacked and shipped to cold storage for the wholesale markets.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Murray Family Farms employee Teresa Hurtado sorts Royal Rainier cherries before packing at their General Beale Road facility on Monday morning. Bad weather has damaged this season's cherry harvest.

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Murray Family Farms employee Teresa Hurtado sorts Royal Rainier cherries before packing at their General Beale Road facility on Monday morning.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Owners of local cherry tree orchards are assessing the damage after badly timed unusual weather decimated this year's cherry crop.

Steve Murray, owner of Murray Family Farms off Highway 58 just east of Bakersfield, called the damage to this year's crop "unprecedented."

"We've never seen it this bad before," said Murray, who still plans to go ahead with a cherry festival the farm has planned for 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday to market its produce.

The festival includes, among other things, cherry pies, a cherry pit spitting contest and a "gourmet cherry bar."

Murray Family Farms estimates it has lost about 45 percent of the yield it was expecting from some 180 acres of cherry trees it grows east of Bakersfield off Highway 58.

Meanwhile, Acorn Farms says at least a quarter of the production on 40 acres of trees it owns east of Lamont is lost. It's not clear yet the extent of the crop damage on another 260 acres of cherries Acorn Farms grower Bruce Frost farms for another owner, but as much as half this year's yield could be gone.

"It's not just us but the jobs, too," Frost said. "It's going to have a big economic impact."

Murray said he'd normally have between 8,000 and 10,000 people picking cherry trees on his property this time of year, "but if you look out here now, you see maybe a dozen cars."

Cherries are the 12th largest agricultural commodity in Kern County by value. They were a nearly $97 million industry here in 2010, according to the latest Kern County crop report by the county Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards.

The county had 6,640 acres of cherry trees in 2010, up 22 percent from 5,450 in 2009.

Cherry trees avoid injury in the cold of winter by losing their leaves each fall and entering a dormant state.

Before they can resume growth, the trees must receive a minimum number of hours of "winter chill," but this year Kern County had an unusually warm winter. That affected flowering and pollination time.

Local average winter temperatures in January were almost 3 percent higher than normal, and February was 2 percent warmer, according to the National Weather Service.

Then, to add insult to injury, there were several frosts during the trees' longer than usual flowering periods.

"It was a tough season," grower Frost said.

Unfortunately, there could be a lot more difficulty for the industry in future years, according to a team of researchers from the University of California, Davis, and the University of Washington.

A 2009 study by the team found winter chill is likely to decrease by more than half during this century as global climate warms, making California no longer suitable for growing many fruit and nut crops.

In a statement issued at the time, Eike Luedeling, a postdoctoral fellow in UC Davis' Department of Plant Sciences, said, "Our findings suggest that California's fruit and nut industry will need to develop new tree cultivars with reduced chilling requirements and new management strategies for breaking dormancy in years of insufficient winter chill."

Frost said he's nevertheless planning to stick with cherries, which he loves to grow.

"It's a sickness, that's what it is," he said, chuckling. "But we'll roll the dice again next year."

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