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Cherry Love

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When most people think of cherries, they think of plump little garnet globes of sweet-tart flavor bursting in their mouths, the juice gushing and dribbling down their chins. Yes, cherries are like that, but they are so much more. Although I’ve always lived near them and even grow a few of my own trees, I have never taken them for granted.

Each year before actual spring, usually the beginning to the middle of March, I look forward to the first cherry blossoms, hoping the winter has been cold enough and long enough to satisfy the cherry trees’ desire for dormancy. This cold weather thing is both a blessing and a burden for me since I love cherries but loathe winter. Yet I know it’s all part of the divine design. Most varieties require 1,000 to 1,500 chilling hours between 35°F and 55°F to induce flowering. The big chill helps to trigger fruit set, and coolness and well-timed rain encourage a heavy crop to mature.

However, there are plenty of pitfalls to growing cherries. With colder temperatures oftentimes comes frost, which is a serious concern for all fruit growers. Too much rain can ruin the ripening cherries, causing them to crack or turning them to mushy pulp. High winds can blow those delicate blossoms off the trees, leaving the ground looking like so much snow on a spring day. Unseasonal heat prompts some varieties to develop spurs, doubles or other deformities. And, of course, the consumer seeking perfection will shun the shamed fruit, all too willing to pay top dollar for the very best.

I watch with mounting excitement as the bees come and go, the petals begin to fall off one by one, and the tiny green spurs fill out and begin to blush. I know I have to keep an eye out because the birds will be there before me if I’m not wary. My trees are still small; I’ve just recently replaced the ancient, feeble ones that my dad planted so many years ago. There’s not nearly enough fruit for the birds and me. My babies are Bings, planted near a lovely, creamy-fleshed Rainier as a companion, since certain varieties, like the Bing, need extra help with pollination.

Between April and June, California produces nearly 100,000 tons of cherries from approximately 40,000 acres. They are produced by over 850 farmers and packed by 22 operations located right in the growing areas. Fresh cherries are very delicate; they have an extremely short shelf life and so they must be handled carefully to reduce bruising. As soon as cherries are picked from the trees, they are brought to a packing facility where they are immediately hydro cooled. They are then sorted by size, color and deformities, with only the most perfect packed into boxes for shipping to markets around the world.

San Joaquin County is the largest producer of California cherries, with the bulk of that coming from our little eastside farm community of Linden. In fact, who has not seen the signs along the road during cherry season proclaiming the famous Linden cherries? This is where the traditional, beloved Bing cherry variety is grown due to the ideal climate, which provides the exact heat-to-cold-ratio recipe for optimal cherry growth and development. As I do, the fruit craves our warm summer days and cool nights.

When most people think of cherry varieties, they think of Bing, as it is California’s major fresh-market cherry variety. It is well known as a large, dark-red, crunchy, sweet cherry, predominantly available for the majority of the month of May and into early June. Randy Rajkovich of Blossom Farms, Linden, shakes his head at the common perception that all cherries are Bing. “It is only one variety that we grow out here, but it’s the one most people are familiar with.” He wants people to know that it may be the most common, but it is not the first one to hit the market. “We now have early varieties such as the Brooks, Chelan and Tulare, which are all ahead of Bing, but people see a red cherry and they just call it Bing.”

Indeed, due to consumers’ impatience for the first cherries to ripen, developers have bred several cherry varieties that are ready for picking around mid-April, a full two to three weeks before the popular Bing. The Brooks, Tulare, Chelan and Coral all ripen earlier; each has its own unique flavor and habit. Some varieties have been developed for heat and rain tolerance and can even get by on less chill time. However most cherry enthusiasts will tell you there is nothing that compares to the old school varieties such as Bing and Rainier when it comes to flavor and texture right off the tree.

If you happen to be a cherry lover, you might want to swing out to Linden on May 19 and spend the day at the Cherry Festival for some good old-fashioned, small-town fun. It begins with a parade, complete with a Cherry Queen and her court, and you can find games, prizes, vendors, food and drink as well as live entertainment and an exceptional car show. Stop in at the Big White Tent to watch the cherry pie eating contest and to buy some cherries in support of the Linden High FFA. While you’re there, be sure to say hi, because I’ll be there judging the baking contest. Believe me, this is where you’ll find a lot more than just cherries.

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