Okanagan cherry crop expected to be lower after changing weather challenging early growing season

Weather challenges cherries

Casey Richardson

It hasn’t been an easy start for the cherry growing season in the Okanagan, with a cold April followed by record-high temperatures in May damaging crops.

Balpreet Gill, who is the operations manager for Gold Star Fruit Company in Oliver, said that his cherry harvest will likely be downsized by about 20 to 30 per cent.

“During pollination, it was nice to get some warm weather in the 20 C's. But when we hit 32 C and 33 C, some of the pollen did dry out and got overcooked. Unfortunately, some cherries won't make it this year, they will fall off the tree and thin the crop out a little bit,” he added.

“April was such a cold month, we had a record late blossom. We didn't hit full bloom on this orchard until May 1 which is very late. Normally we're about April 20 to 22nd. So we were good 10 days behind. And we've gained all that right back due to the heat.”

With temperatures well over the normal for the first and second week of May, Gill said it started progressing the fruit growth way too quickly.

“We lost almost a week of growing time, which is never a good thing when you want as much growing time as you can get for a better size, better quality.”

The heat was so intense that some of the young cherries even got a sunburn.

“The heat certainly brought on blossoms quickly,” Glen Lucas, BC Fruit Growers Association GM said. “It's almost a relief that we've had a bit of cool, wet weather after pollination here. Probably a little warmer would be ideal, but compared to the continuing heat, this might be preferred.”

Some orchardists are seeing the impacts of the weather even further back, with winter’s chill wreaking havoc.

“We had a very late fall, we had record high temperatures in October, which extended the growing season for a lot of items like apples and grapes. And then all of a sudden in November, we had that big snowfall. And then come December, we had record low temperatures,” Gill said.

“It was really difficult because of the late growing season, there's still water in the trees and they are still active. And a lot of people are now reporting dead trees or trees that split wide open.”

Early reports indicate that peaches, nectarines and grapes were hit the hardest by winter's chill.

“Some areas of apricots are impacted and they won't have any crop this year. Others are having just a small crop and it's hard to estimate the availability,” Lucas said. “Peach availability should remain available but a little tighter supply this year.”

“We're happy that we survived the cold weather, which not a lot of orchards did this year. There's been a lot of reports that people that might not have a peach or nectarine crop this year. It’s quite devastating,” Gill added.

Luckily, it seems the cherry trees have yet to be reported as damaged as the others.

“It still has potential to be a good crop, but it won't be that big huge crop that everyone's kind of hoping for,” Gill said.

Currently, orchardists are hoping for average temperatures around the mid-twenties to continue through May and June to give the fruit the benefit of steady growth.

“The next stage the growers will be looking at is called June drop and it's the trees kind of self-thinning at that stage. So some of the small fruit, we call ‘fruitlets’, when they are very small, drop on the ground. It's an interesting balance, you want something to drop out, but not too much,” Lucas said.

Last year the colder spring delayed cherry growth in the South Okanagan and impacted farmers' timelines for their harvest.

Lucas said that with the right temperatures, having a later harvest can be beneficial for orchardists.

“It moves you further away from the risk of frost, which could potentially impact those blossoms and the young fruit,” he said.

“The other benefit of a later cherry season is that we see the cherries run well into late August and even early September. For our export markets in China, that gets us closer to the fall festivals where they like to have cherries.”

Gill said he’s hoping to increase exports again to the Asian markets, which dropped down during the pandemic and have had a slow return.

“We've been battling record-high inflation in the farming sector with fertilizers, herbicides and shipping has been a big one. The cost of shipping an ocean container of cherries to China went up five to seven times during COVID and finally started to come back down,” he added.

“Also this year B.C. has been granted access to ship cherries to Korea for the very first time. So we'll be shipping hopefully cherries to South Korea this summer and we're hoping that they love B.C. cherries and become a loyal, longtime customer."

If everything goes well, the first cherries are expected to be picked in the South Okanagan near the end of June.

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