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The Central Otago cherry season started in earnest on Saturday with early-ripening varieties available to pick your own.

Orchardists were reasonably confident they would have enough workers to pick the crop, if everyone showed up.

Martin Milne, of Cheeki Cherries in Ripponvale, opened his orchard for pick your own on Saturday and expected to continue through to early February.

Pick your own accounted for the main part of his business, although the company also picked for mail-order and export sales.

The early-ripening varietals, such as Burlatt, tended to be a softer fruit so more suited to the pick your own and domestic market he said.

This year the orchard had developed a picnic area and a children’s playspace, and bringing in a van providing food and coffee.

It’s all about getting the families in here and letting them have a good time,” Mr Milne said.

Picking of cherries for export will not begin until mid-December as the firmer, larger varietals suitable for export ripen later.

45 South chief executive Tim Jones oversees about 200ha of cherry orchards, of which about 75% of the pick was exported.

The business expected to export more than 1500 tonnes this season, primarily to markets in Southeast Asia.

Picking normally took place from mid-December to mid-February and about 450 pickers would be required this year, Mr Jones said.

A lack of backpackers and a shortage of recognised seasonal employees in the country meant hiring was a long process this season, and recruitment started much earlier than usual.

Local workers and students had picked up that slack, and New Zealanders would make up 60% to 70% of workers this year.

“We are close to saying we have secured enough staff, but of course, they all have to turn up,” Mr Jones said.