Cherry expansion needs ‘little bit of caution’

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YVONNE O’HARA

and PAM JONES

Market facts

Summerfruit New Zealand (SNZ) says Central Otago produces about 95% of New Zealand export cherry crop and has about 60% of the planted area in the country.

Taiwan, China and South Korea are New Zealand’s main export markets.

About 5080 tonnes of cherries were produced during the 2016-17 season nationally, with nearly 3340 tonnes exported. The market value of cherries last season was more than $88million, with about $71million from export.

While Central Otago’s cherry industry is expanding to meet overseas demand, growers need to be a little wary, industry leaders warn.

More cherries are being planted near Roxburgh and Cromwell.

Additional infrastructure is under way or planned, including T & G’s intentions to build new coolstores at Ettrick this year while new cherry co-operative Pure Pac Ltd has nearly completed its new packhouse in Bannockburn.

Other packhouses in the region intend to upgrade, or have upgraded, their facilities with new technology to reduce reliance on staff.

Summerfruit New Zealand chairman Tim Jones, of 45 South orchards in Cromwell, said while there was growth happening from both existing and new growers and the buoyancy was a sign of positive feedback from the markets, that growth “needed to be treated with a little bit of caution”.

“Do we know what size the market is and are we at risk of oversupply?” Mr Jones said.

“In addition, there are implications for full-time staff, as well as the ability to get enough people.

“Then there are the social issues, such as where those staff are going to live, especially in an area where housing is in short supply and the camping grounds may not always be there.”

A 2015 Central Otago labour market survey predicted the region’s cherry plantings would increase by 34% during the next five years, about 65% of that happening in Cromwell and 29% in Alexandra and Earnscleugh.

family part-owner Mark Jackson said the Cromwell orchard had recently bought an extra 2ha and would be planting new apricot trees there next year.

The orchard also replaced about 1000 cherry trees a year with new varieties.

The plantings were because of increased exports and confidence in the orchard sector, Mr Jackson said.

The orchard was in its second season of using a state-of-the-art computerised Maf Roda Agrobotic grader, which took 30 photos of fruit per second.

Remarkable Orchard owner Sid Birtles, of Roxburgh East, said the new investment in cherries was “positive”, although he had concerns.

“Cherries are a high-value crop but that comes with a high risk,” he said.

Growing and harvesting cherries was not always easy and could be tricky from season to season.

“In addition there are pressures on shipping, as there are only so many planes, which can take only so many cherries.”

Ettrick Fruit Growers Association president Peter Vernon said the new plantings were good for the region.

“It is good to see people investing in the valley,” he said.

He said many orchardists were increasing the productivity per tree and per hectare by replanting new varieties and using a post and wire system, which both supported the trees and allowed more to be planted in the same area.