It’s that time of year when most of us start to dream about a very special fruit that hits the shelves around about now – cherries! Ancient cultures have even believed this tiny super fruit to be a sign of immortality. In modern times, they are cherished as a delicacy and emerging Asian markets even purchase them as luxury gifts.

So to discuss the crop of 2021, we speak with the Hall family who have been growing world-class produce in the rich volcanic soils at the foot of Mt Canobolas in the NSW Central Tablelands for more than 40 years. The fertile soils are a huge advantage but the region’s climate unfortunately also leaves the orchard exposed to excessive rain and some snow and frost.

Fiona Hall assures us there will be plenty of cherries this season but don’t expect the supply to be abundant until a little later in the season. Rain and hail in Spring has wiped out quite a few growing regions. “Cherries may be a bit scarce early on in the season, so of course they are going to be more expensive. It’s just a whole supply and demand situation,” says Fiona. Aside from that, we are expecting a medium to heavy crop. “We’ve got great produce in Orange because of our altitude. We can really grow a big cherry.”

The hall family has been growing Cherries in the NSW Tablelands for more than 40 years

We’ve got great produce in Orange because of our attitude. We can really grow a big cherry.

Despite a good supply, the berry harvest earlier this year has taught us the crop is worthless without someone to pick it. COVID travel restrictions have severely impacted the available workforce. “Since July, we have been trying to secure some contract labour,” explains Fiona. “Fingers crossed we won’t have a shortage this year,” she says. Cherries are usually harvested from early to mid-December, peaking at around Christmas time, finishing up in early to mid-January.

Fiona is recruiting around 800 pickers and 100 packers for that period. Not just for her crop, but for a growers’ alliance that she’s developed called BiteRiot! By combining resources, about 20 growers in the region have joined forces. Instead of packing many smaller crops on antiquated mechanical graders and sending them to the markets, the group now supplies all the major supermarkets with up to 10% of the nation’s cherries. “It became apparent, that if we got together and really got some scale in the operation and got some vending numbers with the supermarkets, developed a lot of export markets and had a longer supply window then it would be beneficial,” says Fiona.

The key to success was an optical grader, the first of its kind in NSW. The machine takes 10 photos of every cherry. “It sizes it to point-1 of a millimetre. So the consumer is going to get a consistent pack. If you’re sending overseas, that’s what their expectation is,” Fiona explains. “I couldn’t imagine packing cherries by the eye anymore.”

I couldn’t imagine packing cherries by the eye anymore.

“That’s been a game changer for the Asian market. China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, and this year for the first time, South Korea are important clients. “They love their cherries. Absolutely love them. But they expect perfection and they’ll pay for them,” explains Fiona.

The process to deliver perfection starts in the orchard. As soon as the fruit is picked, it remains in the paddock for a maximum of 20 minutes. Then, the fruit goes into a hydro-cooler ready for packing. “So they’re never out of the cold chain or cold water since 20 minutes after picking,” Fiona explains. Incredibly, Fiona’s cherries are picked, packed, sent and landed in south-east Asia within 48 hours. “They’re not cheap to pick and pack. By the time you even put them into the box, you’re up to about $6 to $7 a kilo before you’ve even grown them. It’s a high risk crop with a very small window to see returns. “It sort of drives me a little bit when people say how expensive cherries are without the realisation of all the risks that we go to.”

It sort of drives me a little bit when people say how expensive cherries are without the realisation of all the risks that we go to.

Some seasons business is good but Fiona says it’s really an average of 10 years. “You’re going to have a wipe-out year. You’re going to have heaps of challenges. It has to be a financial decision. It’s very hard not to get emotionally involved in whether you pick your cop or not. We put our heart and soul into growing it all year and spend months preparing – getting the shed ready and the sale ready.”

It’s very hard not to get emotionally involved in your crop.

BiteRiot! is working hard on minimising waste with cherries that aren’t packed being turned into cherry juice. The juice is popular among growers in a spritzer with vodka, soda, cherry juice and Fiona adds, “a cherry on top.”

Consumers are welcome to visit the BiteRiot! pack house to buy direct and also observe the whole operation. Fiona describes the scene as “mayhem” but welcomes interest from the public. “We want to connect with the consumer so they can appreciate what goes into the cherries before they land on their tables.”

We want to connect with the consumer so they can appreciate what goes into the cherries before they land on their tables.

The BitRiot! pack house will be working 24 hours a day until the end of January. “It’s pretty amazing to watch when it’s really pumping. There’s no rest at all. If you can get a few hours’ sleep a day, you’re doing pretty good,” Fiona laughs. So if you plan on indulging in some gorgeous cherries this season, spare a thought for the people behind the scenes working to bring you the very best.

Learn more about how delicious Australian cherries are grown by listening to Telling Our Story Episode 2 – A Cherry on Top.

Angie Asimus

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