IF CHERRIES are on your Christmas wish list, you may have to be prepared to pay a premium.
Adrian Vardanega, pictured on our cover with son Seth, 10, Bestview Orchards, Canobolas, said the past week had been a battle and the Young district too has been hit hard by unexpected rain.
“We had 75 millimetres at the weekend and 30mm on Monday, 100mm for the week is enough,” he said, standing in the lee of a shed as gentle rain fell late Monday afternoon on an orchard near Millthorpe that he manages.
At the weekend they called in a helicopter to the Canobolas stand, to blow rain from the tops of the fruit, and again on Tuesday, twice.
A month ago Mr Vardanega, a second-generation orchardist, started laying down 100 kilograms to the hectare of calcium nitrate and upped his watering regime to lessen shock in anticipation of this wet burst.
From Saturday his phone rang incessantly, with anxious buyers wanting an update on conditions at his orchard - 1200m above sea level - because they had heard Young was in trouble.
If it wasn’t buyers calling it was nearby orchardists looking for a helicopter. Mr Vardanega expects a 90 to 100 tonnes off his five-and-a-half hectares of 11 different varieties of cherry trees that are bearing now, “as long as it doesn’t keep raining”.
He said he’d prefer it didn’t rain at all, and he could maintain a strict regime of frequent watering to a depth of about 300mm.
Standing with Mr Vardanega as the rain began to ease pon Monday was Leeva Liu, who watches over 11 hectares of cherries at the Millthorpe plantation for nine shareholders, one based in Australia, the other eight in China.
She said until a newly signed free trade agreement between Australia and China, cherries had travelled a roundabout route to the Chinese mainland known as the “Grey Train”, whereby they were shipped to neighbouring Asian countries and then travelled to the middle kingdom by various routes.
She said the price had been edging up each year, but now, with the FTA in place, both Mr Vardanega and Ms Liu were confident the Chinese middle class would be able to have access to the fruit at a more stable price.
“We buy them as gifts,” she said, “and they are always eaten fresh.”
Because Australia has such a good reputation for reliably fresh fruit, she said it is held in high regard. Mr Vardanega said fresh was key and it was quicker to have cherries in Hong Kong than Brisbane.
“We can have them from the tree to a marketplace in Hong Kong within 48 hours,” he said. This season’s weather was the biggest threat growers were facing, he said.
“After Friday night we had fog until lunchtime and that means fungicides and helicopters.”
Of the market’s outlook this year, he said Australia’s battle was one of constant oversupply for its population, meaning export was key. “It’s a sad fact that in Australian horticulture you really rely on other regions getting wiped out to get a good price.”
He said the Orange region was now growing more cherries than Young.
YOUNG CROP FARING OKAY
WEEKEND rain of more than 85 millimetres may have put the damper on the 68th National Cherry Festival at Young and ruined a fair percentage of ready-to-pick cherries, but all is not lost.
North Young grower and immediate past president of NSW Cherry Growers Association, Scott Coupland, said damage would depend on the stage of growth the fruit was at.
“Damage was mainly done to varieties ready for picking, so affected orchardists will wait a few days for the next variety to come in and return to picking.
“Some orchards close to the end of picking would have called it a day while others, like ours – damaged a little bit – would persevere for about a week and hope the last couple of weeks’ picking will be smooth sailing.”
Mr Coupland, who runs the Australian Blue Bird brand at “Yarrawa”, said as there were different varieties that finish at different times, most growers with rain damage on some of their fruit would wait a couple of days for the next variety to come in and start picking again.
He said his orchard was luckier than some others as he only received 80mm of rain, but there were reports of other orchards getting 100mm-plus.
He knew of orchards using helicopters to blow rainwater off trees.
“But knowing my luck after spending $5000 to $10,000 on helicopters drying our trees, sometime later they’d get another shower. It’s Murphy’s law.”
While the harvest continues and crops mature in different regions exports are more assured after new export access agreements with China, Indonesia and Vietnam for cherries, peaches, plums and apricots were inked two weeks ago.
Calare Federal MP Andrew Gee said the new agreements would make it much easier and faster to get local cherries and other stone fruit into those countries.
“After lobbying Barnaby Joyce and meeting with Australian government officers, negotiations overcame some years of delays and frustration,” Mr Gee said.
Mr Coupland said the free trade agreement was wonderful news and once protocols were finalised the potential for growers to export was immense.
“There is a lot of interest from the Chinese who are wanting fresh cherries.”