Good Fruit Grower

July 1

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Summer Fruits cherry season T Extended Stemilt he California cherry season can make or break the start of the Washington State cherry deal. Good quality cherries from California help secure retail shelf space and build consumer demand so that the Washington cherry season gets off to a strong start. So, when the California cherry growing and packing company Chinchiolo Fruit Company was looking for a buyer ten years ago, Stemilt Growers, Inc., one of Washington's top cherry packers, bought a majority ownership and named the company Chinchiolo Stemilt California. Stemilt had been handling fruit from a lot of orchards in Washington's early-maturing Stemilt expects to pick cherries from May 5 to September 5. sites, company president West Mathison explained. "It seemed that every year, the first three weeks of the season in Washington was determined by the momen- tum that had been created by California, so, for us, this created a wonder- ful opportunity to become engaged with a family that had a strong legacy of quality and had a modern packing facility," he said. "It really just came together well, where it was a win-win for both parties." But it was not without its challenges for Stemilt, Mathison said. "I can say we underestimated the differences that existed in California." California produces different varieties, such as Brooks, Tulare, Coral, by Geraldine Warner Flavor Giant, and Garnett, along with Bing, and managing winter chill was a new experience for Stemilt. Over the past couple of decades, California cherry production has expanded south in the San Joaquin Valley from the Stockton and Modesto areas to Bakersfield. Whereas the California season used to begin in mid- May, it can now start in the last week of April, with increasing volumes coming in early May. A supply of earlier cherries has helped growers and packers make better use of their assets and keep their facilities operating over a longer season, Mathison said, but it's also brought the need for low-chill varieties to the forefront. "That's probably one of the biggest opportunities for the California cherry industry to solve," he said. "How do we find better genetics for low-chill, early-season varieties?" California cherry acreage has increased significantly over the past five to seven years. The increase in plantings has been accompanied by improvements in fruit quality achieved through bet- ter irrigation systems, more expe- rience with gibberellic acid applications, and other growing practices. "Just since we've been down "I can say we underestimated the differences that existed in California." —West Mathison there, the quality has improved in the entire California cherry industry," Mathison said. "We're always wanting to grow the business, but with cherries, we want to grow the business with quality. When you have marginal cherries there's no place to go with them. We'd rather have less volume and higher quality." Horticultural risks So far, the state has not yet been able to achieve its potential production, Mathison said, noting that the horticultural risks are greater in California than in Washington. California production over the past five years has ranged between 9.4 and 10.7 million 18-pound boxes, with the crop taking a hit from weather-related problems most years. For the past two seasons, production in the northern districts was devastated by rains. (Continued on page 12) 10 JULY 2012 GOOD FRUIT GROWER Packing house workers, who live in the Stockton area, work for various fruit and vegetable processing plants after finishing the cherry season with Chinchiolo Stemilt California. Stemilt Growers sends a team of shipping managers, mechanics, and forklift drivers from Washington to California each year for the cherry season.

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