(March 26, 12:22 p.m.) California cherry grower-shippers and officials expect strong demand for a high-quality 2008 crop, which should begin shipping about May 1 and run through mid-June.

Trinity Fruit Sales Co., Fresno, Calif., could begin shipping from the Bakersfield region as early as April 26, about three or four days later than last year, said Oscar Ramirez, salesman.

Central Valley shipments from the Fresno area will follow, with the last region, around Stockton, shipping through about June 10, Ramirez predicted.

Cold nights and sunny days this season have been a boon for the crop, Ramirez said.

“The cooler weather is helping us,” he said. “It lets the cherries hang a little longer and gain a little size. We expect great size this year.”

Larger fruit tends to be better-tasting, Ramirez said.

Rich Sambado, domestic sales manager for Primavera Marketing Inc., Stockton, Calif., reported a good winter, with abundant chill hours for cherries. And growers were reporting good bloom weather in late March, he said.

Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the Lodi-based California Cherry Advisory Board, also reported a good winter and bloom for the 2008 crop.

Early varieties should start shipping in very light volumes April 20-25, he predicted.

“We had a good season last year and are looking forward to another one this year,” Culbertson said.

Increased acreage in 2008 could mean a slightly larger crop than last year, Ramirez said, with shipments industry-wide potentially topping 8 million boxes.

Sambado, however, said this year’s crop would be smaller than last year’s.

“Last year we had our heaviest crop ever, and trees can’t go back to back with heavy crop loads,” he said. “There will clearly be less than last year.”

Culbertson said it was too early to predict how big the 2008 crop would be. California cherry acreage grows slightly every year, he said.

Retailers should look forward to good promotions on California cherries this season, Ramirez said.

In the past, erratic weather and lower acreage kept many retailers from banking too heavily on California, Ramirez said. But with new varieties and more product in the pipeline, buyers have more confidence in the Golden State, he said.

Ramirez expected strong pull for both Memorial Day and Mother’s Day this year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not have prices for cherries in late March.