The California cherry season may be getting off to a slow start, growers say.

While potential remains for a successful 2012 season, some grower-shippers question whether there will be enough volume to sustain Memorial Day retail promotions.

That’s the overall message from grower-shippers in the Golden State.

“It just won’t be an explosive start,” said Louis Scattaglia, managing partner of Traver, Calif.-based Scattaglia Growers & Shippers LLC. “It will be uneven at the beginning.”

In the southern district of the San Joaquin Valley, which typically kicks off the season with varieties such as brooks, garnets, and corals, the crop appears to be “very light and late,” said Rich Sambado, sales manager for Primavera Marketing Inc., Stockton, Calif.

Several warm days in January, he said, “might have caused these trees to be a bit confused.”

Sambado said the crop probably will not peak in the south part of the valley until around the third week of May, but Primavera still should achieve its usual sales volume of about 2 million boxes.

Concern about Memorial Day volumes

The relatively light southern crop is calling into question the availability of promotable volume for Memorial Day.

“East Coast Memorial Day ads will be tough,” said Larelle Miller, sales manager at Rivermaid Trading Co., Lodi, Calif. “The West Coast or Midwest might be able to do it.”

However, Scattaglia said his company should be able to supply ample product for Memorial Day promotions, barring any adverse weather.

Scattaglia Growers & Shippers does not disclose specifics, but Scattaglia said the firm expects up to 40% more volume this year because it has increased its acreage.

The potential for a weather-related setback is fresh in the minds of California cherry grower-shippers.

Last year’s crop appeared excellent, with some projections calling for a second consecutive 11 million carton season. But rain, wind, and scattered hail in June heavily damaged the bing crop in the north.

“It was pretty devastating,” Miller said.

That event wiped out most of the bing crop for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc., said marketing director Roger Pepperl.

Stemilt had expected to ship about 1 million cartons out of California last year, but it ended up shipping just 700,000.

Stemilt has orchards throughout the San Joaquin Valley, including around Stockton and Bakersfield, Calif.

Overall, California shipped about 6 million cartons of cherries last year, said Scott Hudson, San Joaquin County agriculture commissioner.

Getting over the hump

Barring another weather disaster, Pepperl was optimistic that this year’s California crop could come in at somewhere around 10 million to 12 million boxes.

Once growers get over the hump of the slow start in the south, Pepperl said, there is “potential for big numbers” come mid-May. Stemilt is projecting 1.3 million boxes out of California this year.

But cherries are getting increasingly costly to grow and ship, he said, based on rising fuel prices and labor costs. The retail price will have to average at least $2.99 per pound, he said.

“Below $2.99,” he said, “it’s going to be a loss for the grower.”

During peak demand, such as around Memorial Day, Pepperl said retailers should be able to sell a lot of cherries for $3.99 a pound.

Don Goforth shared Pepperl’s optimism for this season.

Goforth, marketing director for Family Tree Farms, Reedley, Calif., said trees had more than 1,200 chill hours between November and February, up from an average peak of about 900 hours.

The importance of the additional chill hours cannot be overstated, Goforth said. It’s similar to how humans function on 10 hours of sleep versus half that much.

Adequate chill hours, Goforth said, generally mean that trees will be “more prolific, they will produce more fruit; they will produce better fruit, sweeter fruit, and fruit that has a better shelf life.”