Cherries

24.05.17

Cherries are a fleshy stone fruit from plants of the genus Prunus. The main species cultivated for edible fruit are sweet or “wild” cherries (Prunus avium), which the Australian industry is largely based on, and sour cherries (Prunus cerasus). Sweet cherries are a naturally vigorous deciduous tree that becomes large and upright if unpruned, reaching heights up to 11 metres. The bark is a decorative silver-grey, and the leaves are a large slender oval shape with a serrated edge. The tree has white blossoms in spring, with buds containing one to five flowers. The fruit is usually heart-shaped to round, about 2cm in diameter, and ranges in colour from yellow to red and nearly black (depending on the variety).

Overview

Cherry trees are largely grown for their fruit, which in Australia is produced over the period from late October to mid-February. The fruit is eaten fresh (sweet cherries) or processed (both sweet and sour cherries) and may be sold fresh, frozen, canned and dried. There are many ornamental varieties of Prunus used in floristry, gardening and landscaping that are prized for their blossom. The wood of some species is valued as fine furniture timber.

The word ‘cherry’ is derived from the name of the Turkish town of Cerasus. Cultivated for thousands of years, the sweet cherry is believed to have originated in the Caspian and Black seas region of south-eastern Europe, and is indigenous to most of Europe, western Asia and parts of northern Africa. It is thought that the Romans took cherries to Britain during its occupation in the first century AD.

In Australia, the first cherry orchard was planted at Young in south western New South Wales in 1878. The industry has thrived in this region since. Young is considered to be the ‘Cherry Capital’ of Australia and hosts the National Cherry festival each year.

While the Australian cherry industry is mainly focused on the domestic fresh fruit market, the industry is expanding the export market, with significant increases in cherry tree plantings over the past decade. Exported Australian cherries command relatively high premiums in the international market.

The Cherry Growers Australia Inc is the member-based organisation that represents the interests of its member states and orchardists nationally. There are representative organisations for cherry growers in most states as well.

Facts and figures

  • Cherries have been cultivated across Europe, Asia and North Africa for thousands of years, growing only in temperate climates
  • Cherries have been grown commercially in Australia since 1878, with over 80 varieties being grown
  • The Australian cherry industry is spread across six states, and there are over 2,800 hectares under commercial production producing over 18,000 tonnes each year
  • 70% of the approximately AU$164 million annual harvest is sold to the domestic market
  • Cherry orchards are susceptible to rain, hail and pest damage, which often requires them to be netted and/or covered, resulting in high operational costs
  • Australia exports cherries to 30 countries

Production status

The Australian Cherry Industry is valued at around AU$164 million. 70% of the national crop is supplied to domestic markets, with the remainder being exported to 30 countries.

Australia is a small producer on a global scale, accounting for less than 1% of global production and less than 0.2% of world exports.

There are over 2,800 hectares under commercial production in Australia. Annual national production is about 18,000 tonnes, with New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania producing over 95% of the national crop.

Cherries are produced by about 485 businesses, which vary in nature from family-operated farms to properties operated by corporate bodies and investment schemes.

Uses

Cherries are presented to the market as a whole fruit, which can be fresh, frozen, canned or dried. The fruit is most commonly consumed fresh or may be added to sweet and savoury dishes. Cherries are also popularly used in baked goods like tarts, pies, strudels and pastries. Cherries can be made into numerous products including: glacé fruit, jams and preserves, cordials, liqueurs and brandy, confectionery and ice cream.

Nutritional benefits of both sweet and sour cherries include good amounts of vitamins C and A, dietary fibre and minerals; with sour cherries being higher in nutritional value than the sweet varieties. Cherries are high in antioxidants and valued for their anti-ageing and system-cleansing properties.

Ornamental cherries, which are prized for their blossom, are used in temperate gardens and landscaping around the world. Sweet cherry wood, along with the African, Brazilian, Patagonian and black cherry varieties, is considered to be one of the best timbers for workability because of its stability, straight grain and rich reddish-brown patina as it ages. Cherry wood is used in cabinetry, fine furniture, flooring, veneer, turned objects and decorative items.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Traditionally, cherry trees have been grown in the temperate cool–cold climate areas of Australia, however, since about 2000, cherry orchards have been established in warmer regions with good irrigation supply.

New South Wales and Victoria have the largest production area, with around 800 hectares each. Tasmania and South Australia have around 500–600 hectares under production, followed by 70 in Western Australia and 25 in south-eastern Queensland.

In New South Wales, the established production regions are Young and Orange but newer areas include Hillston, Mudgee, Wellington, Tumut and Batlow. In Victoria, key production regions include north east Victoria, Goulburn Valley, the upper Goulburn/Strathbogie area and southern Victoria. Tasmanian production regions are the Huon Valley/Channel, Derwent Valley, Coal Valley, Tamar Valley and North West Tasmania. The South Australian industry is concentrated around the Adelaide Hills, Riverland and south east South Australia. Western Australian cherries are grown around the Perth Hills, Donnybrook–Manjimup and Mount Barker, while in Queensland cherries are grown in the Stanthorpe–Granite Belt region.

Soil type

Cherry trees grow on most soil types, but prefer a well-drained and friable soil. They do not grow on heavy clays, as they do not tolerate waterlogging. Slightly sloping land is preferred, with a good depth of well-structured topsoil. Raised beds can be formed to improve drainage if necessary. On sandy soils, organic matter or clay materials may be added to improve both nutrient and water retention.

Lower fertility soils are preferred as tree vigour can be regulated through the management of irrigation and nutrition. The optimum soil pH(water) for cherries is slightly acidic and ranges between 6.5–7.0.

Climate

Cherries grow best in the temperate regions of Australia, with most varieties flowering during spring (September and October) with the peak fruiting season in summer.

Sweet cherries are particularly sensitive to climatic variables. Their ideal growing conditions are low summer rainfall (to minimise fruit damage and reduce disease), low humidity throughout the growing season (which also minimises disease), low to moderate wind (to minimise damage and improve air circulation) and temperatures above 13°C during flowering (to ensure adequate bee activity). Consecutive high temperature days during harvest will stress the fruit impacting fruit quality and even leading to abscission.

The trees are frost tolerant and require sufficient winter chilling (vernalisation) to promote flowering in spring. However, severe frosts from late August to late October will negatively affect bee pollination success, fruit set and cause foliar damage which reduces photosynthetic efficiency.

The pattern of rainfall throughout the year has more impact on the success of the crop than the actual total annual rainfall. Low rainfall during flowering is desirable to optimise pollination and fruit set. Irrigation is considered necessary if annual rainfall is less than 600mm and a stable water supply across all seasons is crucial as irregular water supply can result in a reduction of fruit yield and quality.

Varieties

Over 80 varieties or selections of cherry are being grown commercially or evaluated in Australia. Variety selection will be influenced by the target market (farm-gate, local, interstate or export), and also by an area’s fruit maturity characteristics—for example Tasmania has forged a reputation for growing later-maturing varieties due to its cool climate.

Some major varieties currently grown in Australia include: Bing, Merchant, Lapin, Van, Ron, Sweetheart, Skeena, Staccato, Sequoia, Regina, Dawn series, Simone and Kordia. A national breeding program was conducted by the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) from 1995 to 2014, with six new cherry varieties released between 1998 and 2002. Funded by the Australian Cherry Research & Development program, one of the goals was to help retain international competitiveness.

The suitability of different varieties to different regions of Australia is detailed in the publication Australian Cherry Production Guide. Also, because cherries are self-sterile, several compatible varieties will have to be planted in one orchard.

Cherries do not grow true to type from seed therefore the desired variety is grafted onto suitable rootstock, which is selected on the basis of desired growth and cropping characteristics, soil conditions, potential soil borne diseases or pests, and climate. Rootstock selection is a critical decision in the establishment of an orchard, and explained in detail in the Australian Cherry Production Guide.

Planting and crop management

Before planting rows should be ripped to improve aeration and drainage, nutrients and soil amendments incorporated, old roots removed and if required, the soil fumigated. The rows should be formed into beds if waterlogging is likely. When planning, factors such as row spacing and direction, light interception, operator safety, machinery use and management efficiencies need to be considered.

Cherries are self-sterile and will require cross-pollination by a tree of another compatible variety, therefore several varieties will have to be planted in the orchard.

Trees are planted in autumn, and produce their first crop after three to four years. Full maturity is reached in around seven years and the trees can remain productive for up to 100 years. The trees are planted either mechanically or by hand and then watered in well. Since the mid-1980s most Australian cherry orchards are planted densely, for efficiency and productivity.

The four main commercial planting systems in use are: bush systems, Tatura trellis, central leader and Lenswood tie-down. The different production systems have evolved to meet the various physical and financial constraints of Australia’s cherry producing areas.

A stable water supply across all seasons is crucial for a viable crop industry, as irregular water supply can result in a reduction of fruit yield and quality. Irrigation is considered necessary if annual rainfall is less than 600mm.

Fertiliser programs usually involve three applications per year for young trees, followed by twice a year for mature, fruit bearing trees — at bud-break and post-harvest. Fertiliser can be applied as solid product to the soil beneath the trees, or as liquid by fertigation through the irrigation system. Irrigation and fertiliser management are important ways of regulating tree vigour, therefore lower fertility soils are preferred for cherry production as nutrient uptake can be manipulated more efficiently .

Mulching of rows is of benefit where the soil is coarse, shallow or low in organic matter. The mulch moderates soil temperature, conserves moisture levels, reduces weed competition and improves nutrient availability. However, care must be taken not to introduce pests and diseases with mulches.

Almost all varieties of cherry are self-sterile therefore depend on cross pollination from other cherry varieties. The success of pollination and hence yield, is improved by the presence of pollinating insects. While good orchard management should strive to maintain natural populations of beneficial insects, many growers will engage the services of bee keepers to install bee hives in the orchard, to enhance pollination, as explained in Pollination Aware: Pollination Fact Sheet.

Generally a summer pruning is carried out before or immediately after harvest to help shape young trees and encourage earlier cropping. Occasional (not annually) shortening of laterals and thinning out of spurs is carried out during the growing season. The main objective of training and pruning is to keep trees to a height and shape, so that fruit can be picked from the ground without the need of ladders.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

Australia has experienced relatively few serious cherry pest and disease problems.

Potential insect pests include mites, light brown apple moth, pear and cherry slugs, aphids, thrips, earwigs and weevils. Management and treatment methods for insects include regular monitoring; trapping and removal; use of chemical sprays, baits and oils; encouragement or introduction of natural predators; removal of host weeds; and planting windbreaks.

Vertebrate pests include rabbits, hares, wallabies and possums, which can be kept away from trees with netting fences, plastic tree guards or diversionary food sources. Alternatively they can be disposed of through trapping, poison or shooting.

Native and introduced birds are a major pest in the cherry industry. Control measures include gas guns, balloons and deterrent sprays, all of which must be used in rotation as the birds will become conditioned to just one approach. Depending on local and state government regulations, growers may be permitted to use firearms for scaring birds or for culling birds attacking the crop. A permit will be required for the culling of native species.

The key diseases causing losses in the Australian cherry industry are bacterial gummosis or canker (Pseudomonas syringae), brown rot (blossom and twig blight), leaf curl, and shothole.

The main treatment for bacterial infections is chemical control. Good orchard hygiene methods include pruning during mid-summer to early autumn when bacterial populations are at their lowest, good soil drainage, selection of tolerant varieties and regular monitoring. Destruction of any infected and removed tree material is important as it will act as an inoculum source.

Brown rot is treated with fungicides and should be regularly monitored. Removal of unwanted or infected fruit, and control of pests which can spread the infection, are key brown rot management methods.

Leaf curl and shot hole are treated and managed through regular spraying.

Infrastructure Requirements

A cherry enterprise will require infrastructure that is typical of other horticultural tree enterprises, such as:

  • a tractor
  • irrigation system
  • soil moisture monitoring equipment
  • spray equipment with separate spray units for pesticides and herbicides
  • slasher or mower
  • trailer and farm vehicle
  • farm shed
  • hand tools such as secateurs for manual harvest
  • bins or barrels to transport cherries to the shed
  • truck and bins for transport
  • cool storage
  • pruning equipment

Cherries are susceptible to wind, so it is important to provide a windbreak – particularly during the flowering and fruiting period. Planting of trees is the most successful form of wind break.

Permanent or temporary netting may be required if birds are a pest as fruit ripens and can also provide a small amount of protection from frost, hail and rain.

Rain covers (chemical and physical), to prevent fruit splitting, are increasingly common, however, various factors should be taken into consideration, including installation costs, tree size, airflow, cross pollination, effects on fruit maturity and integration with other structures and systems.

Harvesting & Processing

Harvest time will be influenced by location and variety but can range from late October in western New South Wales through to late February in highland Victoria and Tasmania.

Due to its delicate fruit, cherries are picked manually by hand to remove the stem from the tree without damaging the bud producing structures — maintaining the stem also prolongs shelf life. The cherries should be promptly refrigerated as reducing the fruit temperature increases storage life.

Fruit is graded by size in a number of different ways, depending on the end-market for the product. Once graded, cherries are packed into cartons (usually 1, 2 or 5kg boxes) or sometimes punnets and pre-weighed bags. The packed fruit is stored in a cool room until being transported to market. Most Australian producers chill and pack on the farm. Cool storage should be maintained throughout the supply chain.

Some growers may take the opportunity to value-add, which may take the form of home-baked goods and preserves to frozen or dried fruits and other processed cherry products; however most fruit is sold directly to the consumer, to retailers or to wholesalers for consumption as fresh fruit.

Markets & Marketing

Currently, 70% of the AU$164 million national Australian cherry crop was sold to domestic markets, with the remaining 30% exported internationally to 30 countries.

Australian cherry growers are primarily price takers, who pack their own fruit and market through the wholesale sector. Price will be determined by supply (which is variable across seasons) and fruit quality (which also varies season to season). Industry research shows that consumer demand for cherries is growing and is likely to continue to do so; that consumers view cherries as a healthy snack food and ingredient; and they regarded cherries as a seasonal food, strongly associated with summer and Christmas.

The food service sector is an emerging market for Australian cherries, and there are also opportunities to develop advantageous relationships with the retail sector to drive domestic demand. However, this level of marketing may require an industry approach and individual growers may not have sufficient supply throughout the season.

There is significant potential for growth in all export markets in the Middle East and Europe, as well as China and other Asian countries such as Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia. More information about market prospects for the cherry industry can be obtained from the Australian Cherry Strategic Investment Plan 2017–2021.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

Like all tree crops, cherries present a commercial risk in terms of the upfront investment and the length of time to full production (seven years).

As with all agricultural ventures, unseasonal weather can affect fruit development and product quality, especially if heavy rain or hail occurs at flowering or when fruit is ripe. Unseasonal frost can also have a negative effect on flowering.

Selling into the export market subjects the grower to some risk through fluctuations in the value of the Australian dollar, relatively high production costs compared to some competitors, and increasing competition from other southern hemisphere producers such as Chile and New Zealand. The reputation of Australia as an international supplier can be jeopardised by a lack of export market knowledge and commitment amongst cherry growers, and a limited supply of consistent export quality cherries. Importing countries are increasingly establishing more rigorous import protocols.

Regulatory considerations

The standard regulatory considerations that apply to all Australian farms, including laws applying to chemical use and management, occupational health and safety and transport (including machinery movements and the loading/unloading of harvested product), apply to cherry operations.

Before buying new land to plant a horticultural crop, a thorough investigation of the land’s suitability for a horticultural enterprise should be undertaken, specifically looking at its cropping or land use history. This may include identifying a history of chemical contamination (and residue levels).

Potential disease risks should also be investigated. Some disease pathogens can survive in the soil for many years, so information about previous disease outbreaks will assist determining which crops are suitable for planting. This information can generally be obtained from the relevant state planning authority. Growers will also be responsible for regularly inspecting their orchards for notifiable pests and diseases and reporting any incidence to the relevant state agriculture department.

When planting new orchards and establishing additional on-farm infrastructure, liaison with the state government agencies responsible for planning, native vegetation laws and water licences will be necessary. Some land use applications will also need to be considered by the relevant local government authority.

Certification by organisations such as Freshcare and HACCP may be required to sell product to supermarkets, major retailers and food service industries. Prospective growers should speak with potential customers to fully understand any product certification requirements. When processing any raw product and value-adding, consideration needs to be given to food standards regulations, as administered by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and set out in Chapter 3 of its Food Standards Code.

Cherry producers are liable to pay an R&D levy and export charge to fund research and development, and marketing activities managed by Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited and Plant Health Australia membership.

Image Gallery

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Cherry Orchard

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Cherries

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Cherries ripening on the tree