It's cherry season in California. Which means that in San Francisco at the peak of the season, I can buy cherries at any price point between 59 cents and $6 a pound. So, why such a huge difference in the prices of cherries? And does price have anything to do with taste? And if it does, where should I go for the best tasting, largest, plumpest California cherries?
I already knew that there is always some price variance in produce, dependent on the farmer, the locale of the fruit, the varietal, and the farming methods — organic vs. conventional, how farmers treat workers, and other variables.
But the TENfold difference seemed very out of whack.
And apparently others thought so too. This year, more than ever, I've heard many people talking about the price of cherries. This thread on Chowhound shows the great difference of opinions.
So I set out to find some answers. I asked a lot of questions of people associated with cherry crops in one way or another, and did some online reasearch. And unfortunately I still don't have an official, singular answer to my cherry questions.
But here's what I did find.
1) Cherry crops are finicky. They have a very short growing season, and as one farmer put it, "one rain at the wrong time can wipe out the whole crop." My understanding is that this year has been one of the better years of the past few. This explains the high prices, but doesn't explain the price difference.
2) The Japanese love cherries. An average of 30% to 40% of our California cherries are shipped off to Japan every year. And these are no regular cherries — they are the top of the crop, the biggest and the best conventional cherries that we have to offer (see cherry sizing standards here). The Japanese are willing to pay big bucks for them — enough bucks to be able to demand — and get — our best. While the U.S. markets will pay an average price of $36 per box wholesale for California cherries, Japan will pay an average of $80 (before shipping costs)!
What happens to all the cherries that don't go to Japan? The bottom of the barrel looks-wise end up as seconds in small markets throughout the City where we purchase them for less than a dollar.
These are usually the cherries with funny formations, or that look a little less than stellar. The taste of these vs. the top-of-the-line are debatable. Many people are fine with these, while others contend that the local organic cherries taste better.
3) Exporting cherries excludes organic farming. While the large farms participate in exporting, the local organic farms don't. From what I could figure out, Japan won't allow the organic cherries into the country — they are very concerned about importing parasites. So the organic and no-spray farmers sell the full spectrum of their cherries at the farmer's marketw. When buying the cherries that are over $3 at the market, you are usually purchasing the really beautiful cherries as well as the ones that are more middle of the road. You can pick out the not-so-great ones, or if you're lucky the farmer ends up doing that for you.
4) People are dedicated to their cherry varietal. From what I was told, people are more picky about their type of cherry than they are with most fruits. Some of the cherry types such as Rainiers, are just more expensive than others because more people seek them out.
Given all this information, where am I going for the best tasting, largest, plumpest California cherries? I am going to find the least expensive of the local, organic lot. That will mean buying cherries at around $4 a pound if I'm lucky.
Since cherries are on the high pesticide list I would prefer for them to be organic or no-spray, and raised using sustainable methods. I personally think that they taste better and, as one person told me in an email, "It's important to factor in the price of land and labor as well as the costs of paying workers decent wages. It's not always about ecological versus toxic forms of farming, it's also about the economies of scale of different sized farms, the location of the farm and land prices in that location, and how labor is treated."
Thanks to the following sources (and others) for their help in my quest to solve my cherry quandaries: Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, California Cherry Advisory Board, Washington State Fruit Commission, multiple farmers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and the Marina Farmers' Market, chowhound.com.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave a comment here or email me if you have anything to add to the great cherry quandry!