California

Should you rush out to buy cherries now? Rain has ruined what’s on the trees

Bruce Blodgett’s heart sank as he drove through the pouring rain Wednesday from Stockton to his Elk Grove home.

“I got home and told my wife, ‘The rain is unrelenting right now.’ It’s not what we needed now,” he said.

Blodgett is executive director of the farm bureau in San Joaquin County, California’s cherry bowl. The mid-May downpour and his windshield wipers told him everything he needed to know: His county’s record ready-to-pick yield of sweet cherries – one of San Joaquin’s most lucrative crops even amid the county’s winemaking renaissance – was in serious danger.

Cherry growers watching through their own windows already knew they were about to lose everything.

“Anything that’s right now is getting ruined right now,” Blodgett said Thursday. “For some it’s devastating – you walk out and see your crop’s gone. If you’re crop’s gone, it’s gone. Wait till next year.”

For cherry growers up and down California, from Bakersfield to Linden to Lodi, high hopes for a record-breaking 10 million-box harvest are being crushed by a series of spring storms forecast to continue into next week – just as tons of the fruit are waiting to be picked and shipped to market.

A full 4 million boxes of Bing cherries sit in orchards in northern San Joaquin County’s cherry belt alone, with much of the harvest still looming, say county ag officials, according to industry news website freshplaza.com

“Every orchard in the state got rain. It usually hits here or there. But (Wednesday) night, if you look at the Doppler, it hit from Bakersfield to Sacramento and everything in between. Everything got hammered,” said Nick Lucich of Delta Packing in Lodi. “It’s heartbreaking – the day they’re about to pick, it rains. It’s heartbreaking when it’s their livelihood.”

Jim Boyce of Sacramento restaurant supplier Produce Express watches the local growing season closely. He said the impact on grocers likely will not be immediate. Plenty of product sits in produce cases. Growers anticipating the mid-month’s heavy weather likely picked everything they could before the storm clouds rolled in and buyers will turn their eyes to Washington state’s lush crop if California’s soggy scenario holds.

But Boyce’s words Thursday were as bleak as the view through Blodgett’s windshield: “This will put pretty close to an end to the local and Lodi season,” he said of the rain that hit the region. “I don’t think they will recover from that.”

On Thursday, anxious grocers were on the phone to Delta Packing and other suppliers wondering when – or if – they will be able to fill spring and summer orders.

“We were gearing up to have some really good retail in the U.S. and exports were ready to go,” Lucich said. “I’ve been taking calls all day asking ‘What are you going to do about my orders?’ They’ve set up every store with newspaper ads.”

It’s unclear how the late season rains will affect prices on produce shelves, but with so much fruit at risk, few are optimistic.

Less than three weeks ago, the scene was much different at Lodi’s annual springtime street fair. Thousands of people filled the streets in this downtown in the heart of cherry country about 40 miles south of Sacramento. Fair shoppers crowded booths of plump red cherries as temperatures flirted with the 80s.

That now seems forever ago. With rain falling and more on the way, salvaging a record-setting bumper crop that once held such promise could rest on the coming days. National Weather Service forecasters in Sacramento on Thursday said as much as another inch of rain could fall in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley this weekend and into next week atop the rain expected Friday as another storm system pushes into the region.

Lucich of Delta Packing tried to hold on to hope Thursday even with gray skies overhead that promised yet more rain.

“We’re in produce, so acts of God are always in play. We don’t want to say it’s a complete loss - there is some point of hope. It’s hard to kill a big crop,” he said. “And there are points of optimism: it was a colder storm, so the fruit hangs tight. But with the rain, it’s hard not to see the other side of the coin.”

But cherries are gold in San Joaquin County. It’s a quarter-billion dollar crop and Blodgett, the farm bureau’s executive director, knows well the stakes. Late rains like this week’s can swing San Joaquin’s economy by tens of millions of dollars.

For the growers, “it’s a big part of their income each year. Now that’s gone,” Blodgett said. “It’s a real hit for the county, for growers, for everyone. There’s work lost for everyone.”

The impact touches everybody here.

“There’s nobody happy with this scenario,” Blodgett said.

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.
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