Big Bing Season 

Early harvest, banner year for stone fruits.

Memorial Day weekend, I was driving through Yolo County and had to brake hard to avoid passing by a roadside cherry stand. It was selling purple-black bings that were so sweet and rich that I downed half of the pint before I arrived at my destination. It was weeks before I expected to see good bing cherries at the market.

I'm not the only one talking about the early cherry glut.

Penny Leff, (soon-to-depart) market manager of the Berkeley Farmers' Markets, says that, because of the unseasonable springtime heat, cherries -- and apricots and peaches too -- are coming in early and strong. "It's really a great year for stone fruits," she says.

How hot has it been? Using Sacramento as the reference point, I asked Steve Anderson, a forecaster at the Bay Area office of the National Weather Service, to check this year's temperatures against the last. According to him, in April 2004 the average high temperature was 11 degrees over that of April 2003, and rainfall was down from 2.5 inches to 0.9 inches. The last time the area experienced such springtime heat, says Anderson, was 1997.

That's no surprise to the farmers at the Tuesday Berkeley market. Mike Salinas claimed his cherries were actually the last of the season. "We'll be out by next week."

"The fruit is ten days ahead of schedule," confirmed Melanie Miller of Blossom Bluff Orchards, which specializes in stone fruits cherries, peaches, plums, and pluots. Rich Schieffer of Star Valley Farms started selling peaches three weeks ahead of schedule. "Not only is the flavor and the sweetness [of these peaches] the same as last year, but we had a good 'set' -- less rain in February and March meant that we had more fruit on the tree." Are the bigger yields translating into lower prices? Unfortunately, Miller and Schieffer say no.

Set your canning clocks ahead: Anderson says that the NWS's Climate Prediction Center forecasts that temperatures will continue to be slightly higher than average throughout August, continuing the early arrival of fruits and some vegetables to the market.

But the heat giveth and the heat taketh away. Though Brian Boyce of Riverdog Farms says the early summer has hastened the ripening of the season's first cherry tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes, a March heat wave blasted away Riverdog's first crop of melons and cucumbers and caused other crops to bolt.

Judith Redmond of Riverdog's neighbor, Full Belly Farms, said that the high heats in Yolo County make it hard to work in the field -- and hard to keep up with the tomatoes and melons. "But," she said, "it's made things really sweet and wonderful."


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