BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — As March drew to a close, grower-shippers in all of California’s four cherry growing regions heaved a sigh of relief.

Some heavy March rains pushed seasonal totals to 150% of the normal range, and some orchards were hit at the height of the bloom, growers said.

Despite the inclement weather, some grower-shippers predicted a second consecutive 11 million carton season.

California cherries are the first of the nation’s domestic stone fruit crops to reach market with Kern County, at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, traditionally leading the way.

Harvesting of Kern County orchards for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc. was scheduled to begin the first week in May, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director.

“Our California production will have a lot more fruit on the front end,” he said.

Season opening varieties for Stemilt will be brooks, garnets and corals.

At Harold Crawford Co. Inc., Bakersfield, the outlook is for larger volume than in 2010.

“We have great crops and with new acreage coming on, the potential to be bigger than last year,” said Chris Callahan, who works in sales and cherry procurement.

Growers for Crawford were scheduled to begin harvesting royal lees about April 25, he said.

The company plans to begin shipping brooks cherries about May 5 — roughly three days later than usual — with tulares starting to come off the trees about May 12, Callahan said.

Fresno-based TriStone International LLC markets cherries from all four of the state’s growing districts. Harvesting of TriStone’s Kern County cherries also was scheduled for the first week of May, said Michael Jameson, owner.

The trees are showing signs for another big crop, he said in mid-March.

“There were two to three fruit buds per cluster last year, but this year the numbers are three to five buds per cluster,” he said.

“The trees still have to go through drop, but the potential’s there for a very good crop.”

The trees naturally drop some fruit when the fruit set is too heavy, Jameson said.

Grower Direct Marketing LLC, Stockton, also represents growers throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Kern County varieties will include brooks, tulares and corals, said Jim Hanson, managing director.

“If we’re able to offer volumes in late April, they will be very small,” he said.

The Kern County harvest for Hanford-based Flavor Tree Fruit Co. will feature Sequoias, one of the company’s proprietary varieties, said Maurice Cameron, president. Picking was scheduled to begin a day or two before May 1, he said.

Flavor Tree anticipates larger fruit this season.

“Going into the season, we pruned early to maximize size as opposed to volume,” Cameron said.

“The whole idea is to grow bigger, better cherries.”

The 2010 cherry volume was big, but much of the fruit was on the smaller side, he said.

By early May, Flavor Tree will begin shipping cherries grown in and around Hanford, Cameron said. The central district harvest will include the company’s other proprietary variety, Yosemites, he said, with picking scheduled to begin about May 16.

“The Memorial Day weekend will be a big push again this year,” Cameron.

“The central district harvest is pretty much in tune for the holiday, and we peak at the Memorial Day ad times.”

Barring rainy weather in late April or early May, California will be able to meet the demand for cherries from early May until about June 20, Jameson said.

Another bumper crop would not mean an oversupply, he said.

“Even if we go to the 11 million to 12 million carton range, we still have a nice pipeline for cherries,” Jameson said.

The central district harvest for Grower Direct Marketing will add rainiers to its inventory of brooks and tulares, Hanson said.

The bloom at the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley ran into late March, grower-shippers said. The March rains were not a major concern, however, said Rich Sambado, sales manager for Primavera Marketing Inc., Stockton.

“The March weather during bloom was a factor, but the crop load of last year and pruning practices, frankly, have a bigger role in determining the crop load,” he said.

Other factors in the northern district are new early varieties, Sambado said. Those include chelans, garnets and corals. Bings, once representing 75% of all California cherries, continue to dominate, but the variety’s share of the pie is getting smaller, Sambado said.

“With all the new acreage up and down the state and the new varieties, that percentage has dropped somewhat,” he said.

“But bings are still a solid 60% of the state’s volume.”

A limited amount of the north valley early season varieties could begin to ship in late April, Sambado said, because lighter crops come on faster.

Primavera was scheduled to begin the season May 2, he said, with the bing harvest scheduled to begin about May 23 “and really ramping up the first two weeks in June.”

Grower Direct Marketing in the north valley concentrates on bings, Hanson said, with the harvest scheduled to begin in mid-May.

Lodi-based Rivermaid Trading Co., formerly All State Packers, will start the season with brooks, tulares and a limited supply of corals, said Larelle Miller, sales manager. Harvesting was scheduled to begin the first week in May.

California’s emerging growing district is Hollister-Gilroy-Morgan Hill, located about 30 miles south of San Jose and further south. The district’s production comes at the end of the California season, Sambado said.

“That district will start about June 1,” he said, “and now represents close to 500,000 cartons.”