A March frost likely will prevent California from matching the record 8.6 million boxes of cherries it produced last year, but grower-shippers remain optimistic they will have good quality and volume.

"The crop will likely result in the 7.5 million to 8.2 million carton count for the state, which remains one of larger crops in history," said Jim Hanson, managing director of Grower Direct Marketing LLC, Stockton, Calif.

The state's southern district is expected to start in late April with early varieties, such as brooks and tulare. George Rossi, director of sales and marketing for Farmington Fresh Sales LLC, Stockton, said he expects that area to peak in volume during the second week in May.

Rich Sambado, sales manager for Primavera Marketing Inc., Stockton, said a March 10 frost affected growers in both the southern and northern districts, but it appeared to be more severe in the south. He said he expects the southern district, which accounts for about one-third of the state's volume, to be down as much as 35% from a year ago when it produced more than 3 million boxes.

"The trees didn't respond as well this year," he said. "Some sets are very nice, and some are quite light. It's all over the board."

Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the California Cherry Advisory Board, Lodi, said the frost was not widespread.

"We expect a good crop," he said. "We've had a little frost here and there, but it hasn't had much of an effect. It's fairly isolated."

In fact, a few companies said they expect a record or near-record year.

"We've had adequate cold hours," said Dave Parker, director of marketing for Scattaglia Growers & Shippers, Traver, Calif. "Conditions going into bloom were terrific. Our volume is going up because of new plantings and new properties."

General manager and sales manager Paul Poutre said Delta Packing Co. of Lodi Inc., Lodi, Calif., expects 700,000 boxes this season, starting April 20 with brooks.

"We should have exceptional quality of California cherries to market this year, along with a 50% increase in volume," he said. "We are putting in 60 to 100 acres a year."

Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc., which entered the California cherry deal in 2003, is expecting its biggest year in the state with more than 1 million boxes forecast.

"We're expecting a good crop," said marketing director Roger Pepperl. "We have good bud sets. It looks like it's going to be the biggest season for Stemilt so far. We've been ramping up. We have a lot of new production coming in."

In early May, chelans and garnets begin harvest before bings - which represent more than half the state's crop - start in mid-May and run through mid-June.

Rossi said he expects northern bing production to peak the first week in June and wrap up in mid-June. Washington typically starts its harvest the first week in June.

California's crop marks the first significant cherry volume in the North American market since Chile's winter imports.

"There's not many cherries after late January," Sambado said. "It's important to get the southern district off on the right foot with the best quality possible."

California's cherry season starts slightly ahead of the state's stone fruit, meaning it has little competition in the produce department.

"Cherries are one of the few items that still have some seasonality," Sambado said. "You get excitement generated for cherries. They sell quite well throughout North America. We have an advantage in that aspect."

Pepperl said Stemilt hopes for three weeks of ads out of retailers, starting in late May and early June.

Jim Stewart, president of WesPak Sales Inc., Dinuba, Calif., said on April 6 that some very limited picking could take place the last few days of April, but that he thought the season would really begin about May 1 and that harvesting would continue for about five weeks.

"We'll start wrapping up the cherry deal at the end of May," he said.

WesPak grows brooks and tulare cherries in Hanford and Reedley. The company's cherries are not packed at the WesPak facilities in Dinuba but are trucked to Lodi for packing. However, WesPak markets the crop.

Staff writer Don Schrack contributed to this report.