The earliest hint that the seasons are starting to switch from spring to summer is the baskets, bowls, and piles of early sweet and sour cherries on local market tables. We started watching the calendar when the artichokes showed up. Once artichoke leaves start to open up, it means that cherries, and summer, aren't very far behind.
If the weather continues to hold out in the cherry orchards of the San Joaquin, we could be looking at a phenomenal cherry harvest in the coming weeks. And even though initial agricultural projections have been saying cherry season was going to be about a week or two late due to some colder weather during blossom set, we spied some very early cherry varieties at the local markets this morning. Cherries are particularly finicky as harvest approaches. One good rain storm splits the fruit, making it pretty much unsellable. But if this cherry weather holds, we could be looking at a record breaking harvest for California this year, and full of some of the best fruit we've seen in long time.
These earliest of cherries from Murray Family Farms are the Royal Lees, a variety that requires less winter chill time. Royal Lees ripen a good two weeks before other varieties and are sweet with a softer, less dense flesh and have a bright, light ruby color. Vickie Murray, who helps oversee the 165 acres of cherry trees that she and her family tend in Bakersfield, says they're good, but that one of her real favorites will be in next week: the Brooks.
“Brooks and Royal Rainiers are what I make myself sick over,” said Murray. “And [this year] we're going to have the best harvest we've ever had. We're so excited.”
Part of the reason for this year's bumper crop has been the magical combination of a good, long wintertime chill coupled with just the right amount of rain. The result has been an impressive blossom set sprouting off well-rested trees. The fruit, Murray says, is full and coloring up well, and barring any weather mishaps (cherries are notoriously finicky about rain and cold), this crop will break records.
Last year's warmer winter and heavy rains didn't do much for the cherry crop, thought the season seemed to last a little longer since the trees were ripening fruit at uneven rates. This year, everything is ripening at once and on cue, which means great fruit, but a shorter season: four to six weeks tops.
“[Cherries] are a fleeting butterfly,” said Murray. “There are a lot of peaches that you can eat all summer and citrus that are around all winter. But cherries are here and then gone and you're not going to see them for another year.”
In addition to being one of the newer vendors at the Wednesday Santa Monica Market, Murray Family Farms also opens up their two Bakersfield farm locations for visits and agrotourism. Their “Old Tomato Weigh Station” farm on the 5 freeway about 18 miles south of Bakersfield will be opening up for cherry picking in the next week or so.