May/June 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Richard Green and Matt Salvo
Anticipation builds for short, sweet season
More online: Swirly Bing cherry and yogurt ice pops
As the first stone fruit to hit the market as summer approaches, cherries have a way of igniting not just excitement but urgency for what will be a fleeting season of the sweet, plump jewels.
"You're so hungry for cherries by the end of a long winter, and cherries sort of inaugurate the fruit season and summer," said Jackie Markovits, a longtime and loyal customer of Gotelli Farms, which specializes in growing sweet cherries.
Though she lives in Vacaville, Markovits and her husband Marty have been shopping at the Davis Farmers Market for many years, and during this time of year, they specifically look for the red and white striped awning under which they will find Shelby Gotelli selling her family's cherries.
The couple has known Gotelli since her high school days, when she started working farmers markets on her own. She and her younger sister Ashley have been familiar faces to market patrons since they were toddlers, when their mom Missy would deck them out in matching cherry dresses to hand out cherry samples.
"They'd say, 'Try a cherry, try a cherry,'" Missy Gotelli said. "They were so darling. It really drew people in, and people got to know the girls."
Shelby Gotelli still hands out cherry samples to farmers market customers, just as she did when she was growing up.
Missy Gotelli started selling the family's cherries at farmers market 24 years ago, long before it was hip. She did not come from an agricultural background but became entrenched in the cherry business when she married Tom Gotelli, whose family has been farming in the Stockton area since the turn of the last century and has built a cherry business that now includes growing, packing, shipping and marketing.
Although their cherries are sold throughout the country and internationally, Missy Gotelli and her daughters maintain a steady local presence in more than 40 farmers markets throughout Northern California. Even today, Shelby, 24, and Ashley, 22, both with their own careers outside the family cherry business, come back every May and June to work the farmers market circuit during cherry season.
"I've always loved it," said Shelby Gotelli, a mortgage banker. "Maybe it's that family history that I think is so special. I love that aspect of it because I love my family a lot. When you grow up with something, it just becomes a part of who you are."
When they were younger, the siblings viewed farmers markets as "more for fun" and tired quickly handing out samples, recalled Ashley Gotelli, adding that "most of the time, we were eating the cherries, or we were building forts out of the cherry boxes."
By the time they were in middle school and old enough to make change for their customers, selling cherries became more of a job and they worked the markets to make money, she added.
"Now that I'm working in my own business looking back, cherries definitely taught me so much about finances and marketing," said Ashley Gotelli, an esthetician. "And it's still a fun experience talking to people and getting to know them."
Missy Gotelli, right, shows cherries from Gotelli Farms to Stella Norris, a regular customer.
Tasting is believing
As a former schoolteacher, Missy Gotelli said educating customers about cherries has been a big component of what she does at the markets. That's why getting people to try samples is so important, she said, because cherry varieties differ in color, flavor and firmness, and there's often a misconception that only dark-red cherries are ripe and therefore sweet.
She noted that in her early years, when Rainier cherries—which are golden with a red blush—were not yet widely available, shoppers shied away from trying them because they thought the cherries were not ripe. The Brooks cherry, which is an early-maturing variety and is first to arrive on the market, sometimes gets the same brush-off because of its bright-red color, she said.
"People didn't even know what they were years ago, and now they're one of my most popular," Missy Gotelli said. "In fact, that's probably my favorite cherry."
The Gotellis grow about 10 different commercial cherry varieties, but there are probably more than a thousand varieties in the world, said Tom Gotelli, who manages the family's O-G Packing. Growing more varieties allows the Gotellis to stretch the brief cherry season longer and to have a consistent flow of fruit to the market. Before early-season varieties such as the Brooks came along, he noted, cherry season used to be even shorter.
Varieties such as the Brooks, Tulare and Coral also tolerate hot climates better, allowing farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley area of Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties to grow them, he said. Cherries from that region appear on the market first, sometimes as early as late April. Peak season begins with the arrival, usually in mid-May, of Bing cherries, the most popular variety and one that is heavily promoted for the Memorial Day holiday. California cherry season typically wraps up by the end of June.
An employee working for the Gotellis' O-G Packing harvests Rainier cherries, characterized by their yellowish-red blush.
Hard work and happiness
Most of the state's cherries are grown in the Stockton-Linden-Lodi area south of Sacramento. It is this region that also produces most of the state's Bing cherries, which don't do well in the warmer climate of the southern San Joaquin Valley, Tom Gotelli said. Extreme heat can lead to abnormalities such as double cherries and spurs, which are cherries that started as a double but one-half is dried up. Both still taste good, but typically go for a reduced price.
But what cherry farmers dread most during harvest season is rain, which can cause the fruit to split, making it unmarketable.
"There have been years where we lost our tails for sure," Missy Gotelli said. "You put a ton of money into growing the crop throughout the year and you can lose it in a matter of 24 hours."
Tom Gotelli manages the family's O-G Packing, which has been packaging cherries for more than 60 years. The "O" in the name stands for the Oneto family, former business partners.
What has helped, she said, is that the family is now more diversified and farms in both the south valley and in the north. They also contract with other growers. Though their main crop is still cherries, the family also grows blueberries, apricots and walnuts.
For the Gotelli women though, establishing relationships with their customers is still their specialty. Working farmers markets allows them to connect with their regulars, some of whom have been visiting their tents for years. Shelby Gotelli said she knows some of her customers so well that she's gone to lunch with them and some have been to her house for dinner. One customer even sends each member of the family a birthday cake every year.
"Because I've been doing certain markets literally since I was a kid, I've grown up with these people," she said. "Every May and June, I get to see all these friends that I have known since I was super young. I get to catch up and hear about their lives."
What's more, she said she enjoys being able to provide her customers the fruits of her family's labor, knowing how hard they have worked to bring the fruit to market.
"People get so excited about cherries, and I love the happiness it brings them," she said. "Not many people get the opportunity to make so many people happy. I love the fact that something so simple as fruit can reach so many people."