By now, most farmers markets and produce bins typically are loaded with the tiniest and most finicky of the stone fruits, cherries -- but not this year. A warm winter and dry conditions doomed two-thirds of the Bing and Rainier cherry crop this season. California growers had picked and packed about 300 million pounds of cherries by this time last year. This year, it's barely 100 million pounds.
Deciduous fruit trees go dormant during the colder winter months. It's Mother Nature's way of protecting the tree from freezing temperatures. The result: Cherry trees need a certain number of "chilling hours," when the temperature drops below 45 degrees and the tree can store up energy, so to speak, to blossom and produce fruit in the spring. Bings need 700 to 800 chilling hours, but they didn't even come close. That meant fewer blossoms and a lot less fruit.
The second factor this year is California's drought. Less winter rain means less fog in the San Joaquin Valley, whose perfect climate has made it the Napa Valley of cherries. Less fog means less bud growth, less bud growth means fewer blossoms, and fewer blossoms translate to fewer cherries. Wholesale prices have reached $90 for an 18-pound carton, more than double the normal price at this point in the season. So we're seeing retail prices of $7.99 to $9.99 per pound, when prices should be around $3.99 per pound. We'll have to wait for cherries from the Northwest before we see better supplies and better prices.
Michael Marks is the marketing manager for FreshPoint.
In the Bins
San Joaquin Valley
$2.49 to $2.99 per pound
Tips: These flat little peaches are the perfect size for small hands. They're easy for kids to hold and eat. Ripen them just like regular peaches.
Red bell peppers
79 cents to 99 cents each
Tips: There are great supplies of field-grown red bells in markets now. These are "ripe" green bell peppers, so they have a shorter shelf life.
Black Velvet apricots
San Joaquin Valley
$4.99 to $5.99 per pound
Tips: Growers are having fun developing new varieties of apricots. These have dark, velvety skin, but the flesh explodes with apricot flavor.