Although some apricot orchards in the south end of California’s San Joaquin Valley suffered an unusual March 17 hailstorm, the Patterson-Westley region — the state’s main production area — escaped relatively unscathed.

This year, grower-packer-shippers say they expect a more normal start to the season, unlike 2011 and 2010, when cool spring weather delayed fruit maturity.

Based on current conditions, Brian Wright, salesman at Del Mar Farms, Westley, Calif., predicted harvest should start about May 18 — at least five days earlier than last year.

“It’s been pretty much ideal from the chill hours we’ve received all the way through the bloom,” he said.

Del Mar Farms expects a little more early volume as younger orchards of goldbar, robada and coral cot apriums come into production.

Compared with later varieties, such as patterson and tri-gems, the earlier varieties tend to have more blush, “which is what more retailers and consumers are asking for,” he said.

One practice the vertically integrated operation has started is allowing fruit to ripen on the trees longer. Harvest crews wear cotton gloves and use padded picking buckets and bins to protect the fruit.

“Especially the early varieties are very delicate,” Wright said. “We’re trying to pick them riper in the field, handle them more delicately and then the consumer gets a better tasting piece of fruit.”

Dave Santos, co-owner of Blossom Hill Packing Co., Patterson, Calif., said he expects to start shipping the first week of May, about a week earlier than 2011.

Based on current conditions, he said retailers should expect a good, clean crop and good supplies.

In addition to standard packs, Blossom Hill also has had success with handled bags, said Jim Lucich, salesman. Fifteen bags of random weight and that total 24 pounds are packed in a Euro-footprint box.

“It looks good, it arrives well, and it’s great for the customer,” he said.

The bags have been popular with chains in the East and Northwest, Lucich said.

Initial surveys of southern San Joaquin Valley orchards indicate spotty hail damage, but grower-packer-shippers say that could change if more hailstorms hit orchards before harvest.

“Last year, we had pretty severe damage and in some areas saw it hit 50%,” said Gene Coughlin, category director for Sun World, Bakersfield, Calif. “This year, so far we’re seeing less hail damage than last year which should lead larger crop. But we are cautiously optimistic and will really have to wait and see. We hadn’t thinned yet, so that should help.”

Coughlin said he expects the season to start the first week in May — more of a normal timeframe.

Sun World markets the proprietary Honeycot brand in volume fills, two- and three-layer tray packs and egg-carton-like clamshells.

Kingsburg Orchards, Kingsburg, Calif., plans to continue its trend of shipping more proprietary apricots, such as the Golden Sweet, and should have a full complement of other varieties of apricots and apriums, an apricot-plum cross, this season, said Dan Spain, vice president of sales and marketing.

Like Coughlin, he said it’s too early to know the hailstorms’ impacts.

“We think we’ll be OK,” he said about orchards in the Kettleman City area, which were hit by hail at 2 a.m.

During the hailstorms, Michael Elwinger, Kingsburg Orchards marketing manager, said hail cannons were going off all over the orchards.

The automated technology produces shockwaves that disrupt hailstone formation in clouds.

“The retailers like to know there’s some type of insurance,” Elwinger said. “That’s the thing with stone fruit — it’s a real volatile market.”