Cherries a world apart
Orchardist Hugh Dendy has an 8,000-mile commute.
When Hugh Dendy travels between his cherry orchards, it's a trip to the other side of the world—literally.
For the past eight years, Dendy has been splitting his time between Canada and New Zealand, and producing crops in both places.
A long-time cherry grower in Kelowna, British Columbia, Dendy decided to branch out to the Southern Hemisphere during a visit to the South Island of New Zealand. He was out shooting rabbits with a friend when he noticed a pasture for sale.
Dendy now has 35 hectares (86 acres) of cherries near Cromwell, New Zealand, and will plant another 30 hectares (75 acres), along with some apples to help keep key crew members busy after the cherry harvest.
Cromwell is on the equivalent latitude to Portland, Oregon, in the Northern Hemisphere. It typically has 12 to 14 inches of rain annually, but last year received only nine.
Dawson is the traditional cherry variety produced in New Zealand, but Dendy's not impressed by it. "It's like a Van, but smaller," he said. "I think they'll be all gone in a few years."
Dendy is growing a number of varieties from North America. He's found that Sweetheart grows better in New Zealand than in Canada where it originated. "I picked my first eight-row Sweetheart this year," he said, adding that the cherries were also very firm with a nice finish.
He's tried several varieties from Dr. Bob Andersen's breeding program in New York. One never cropped and another he dismissed because the birds liked the fruit and the trees died of canker. "There's another that the birds won't eat, and neither will I, so that's gone," he said.
Chelan, from Washington State University's breeding program at Prosser, was disappointing, with sugar levels at between 10° and 12° Brix, about half the Brix level he aims for. "You have to have a strong stomach to eat more than one," he commented.
But Columbia, also from WSU, is a high quality, very firm cherry with good eating quality and size, in his assessment, and Tieton also looks good. "It's a beautiful looking cherry, but it's not early," he said. "It comes in after Bing."
The European variety Regina crops more heavily than in Europe, but fruit size is mixed.
All Dendy's cherry trees are on the Colt rootstock, because that's all that was available from nurseries.
"If I had my choice, Colt would be the very last rootstock I would plant," he said. "But it's the only one available in New Zealand. That's because nurserymen love it."
Trees on Colt need more water and nitrogen than those on Mazzard, and they tend to grow a small number of upright branches. It's not dwarfing or precocious, and Dendy thinks that it aggravates problems with bacterial canker because the trees have a small number of strong branches.
Some dwarfing Gisela rootstocks have been imported into New Zealand but have not been distributed yet, he said. There's not much interest among nurseries in new cherry rootstocks. It's difficult for them to justify the cost of bringing in new rootstocks for such a small industry.
Dendy uses the central leader training system because of the need to produce large cherries. The markets demand a 30-millimeter (9-row) cherry. "We have a market for cherries a little smaller—9-1/2-row—but that's about it," he said. "They also require a very firm cherry."
The central leader gives relatively even light distribution so that the cherries mature evenly and are firm.
Dendy said he has tried other growing systems over the years, including the Spanish Bush and V trellises. He found Spanish Bush to be unproductive and has doubts about the Kym Green Bush (KGB) developed in Australia.
"I've seen some very impressive trees on KGB, but I don't believe it should work," he said. "You're growing a lot of fruit on very vigorous upright wood. Cropping is not heavy. I think wood at the base of the upright doesn't usually fruit, but if it does, it's shaded. It would be a big problem in New Zealand because there's no domestic market to speak of and the buyers have no tolerance for soft fruit."
New Zealand produces about 2,000 tons of sweet cherries, though plantings are increasing. The acreage in the ground now is enough to produce 6,000 tons. In a year or two, the industry will be similar in size to British Columbia's.
In comparison, Australia produces 10,000 to 12,000 tons, and Chile exports 30,000 tons of cherries. That makes New Zealand the third-largest cherry exporter in the Southern Hemisphere, although Washington State produces twice as many cherries as the whole Southern Hemisphere together.
Air freight from New Zealand to New York costs $5 per kilo. To Taiwan, it's $4.50 per kilo. Buyers pay duty on the cost of the cherries plus freight, which makes them expensive for overseas buyers. Dendy would like to find a cherry variety that could be shipped by sea.
Though he exports to Europe, he has elected not to become certified with food safety programs. Buyers from the U.K. supermarket Tesco told him they would not buy his cherries unless he became certified under their Nature's Choice program, but they continue to buy. Similarly, buyers who prefer EUREPGAP certification are still buying his cherries.
"We feel that we have as clean a pack and as sanitary conditions as anyone in the world," he said. "I don't see why I would want to spend a lot of money on certification." Dendy said he's not worried about the competition. "I'm optimistic about the future of cherry growing in the Southern Hemisphere."