The cherry harvest gaining momentum in Kern County this week is serving as a good reminder why the crop has become such a risky proposition locally.
Farmers in the southern Central Valley say this looks to be a decent cherry season — nothing special but far better than last year, when a freeze cost some farmers their entire crop.
With some exceptions, overall quality and total yield are expected to be less than ideal this year. That, combined with a compressed harvest schedule that limits the price advantage Kern growers typically enjoy, means farmers who abandoned the crop in favor of almonds and pistachios in recent years probably won't return to cherries any time soon.
"Cherry growing is tough down here in Kern County," said Bruce Frost, who grows several varieties of the fruit on 40 acres east of Bakersfield. "We don't get nearly the yields they do to the north."
Amid years of difficult weather conditions, the amount of land set aside for cherry orchards in the county has fallen significantly. It dropped 17 percent to 5,321 acres just in 2017, the most recent year for which Kern-specific data are available.
Weather affects cherry quality and yield in two ways: High summer heat can cause deformations known as sutures and doubles, while a shortage of very-cold winter temperatures deprives the trees of the "chill hours" they need to produce at their best.
What's more, a late bloom has reduced the timing advantage Kern cherry farmers normally enjoy. This means locally grown cherries will hit the market relatively late in the year, forcing them to compete more directly with fruit grown further north, where better weather conditions translate to far greater production volume.
Some worry this could add up to a cherry glut that helps consumers but hurts growers.
"It's going to be a good year to be early and a bad year to be later," said Kern County grower Steve Murray, who started picking cherries for farmers markets Wednesday and plans to begin harvesting the fruit for export to Asia as soon as Tuesday.
His family, owner and operator of Murray Family Farms, hopes to make the best of the situation this weekend by inviting people to a pair of local events. There will be a "U-pick" personal harvesting opportunity Saturday and Sunday at the family's Little Purple Barn, 9557 Copus Road. Meanwhile, a cherry festival with various contests, rides and specialty goods is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the family's Big Red Barn, 6700 General Beale Road.
Frost said he's making do as well as he can this year. He started picking some early varieties Thursday. But he said the variety he grows in greater quantities didn't get enough chill hours this year and so those trees won't do as well.
"It's a mixed year for me," he said. "I'll make some money but it's not going to be a big barn-buster."