As cherry production has increased in Chile, so has the need to grow large fruit.
Operating seven casinos in Chile evidently wasn’t enough of a gamble for the owner of Agricola Victoria, which has cherry orchards at Rosario, south of Rancagua.
Improving fruit size is a key goal for Antonio Walker, who owns and manages an orchard at Teno, just north of Curic, the heart of Chile's cherry industry. Walker's company, Agricola San Leon, has been growing cherries for nine years. In the past, he could pick cherries as small as 22 mm (11-1/2 row), but as production increases, growers will need to produce larger cherries to be profitable, he said. "We would like to have cherries of 26 mm (10 row) at least."
To improve fruit size, Walker is pruning harder than before to adjust the crop load and sometimes removes flower buds from spurs during the winter. For example, if there are six flower buds on the same spur, he might take off two or three of them. If done before green tip, the job takes about 20 to 25 man-days per hectare (about 8 to 10 days per acre) at a cost of $25 per person per day, he calculated. Ten days after full bloom, he counts the fruit on 1 percent of the trees and makes further adjustments to the crop load if necessary.
He aims for a ratio of five leaves per fruit and said the best tree is one where he has to look under the leaves to find the young cherries. "When we see the fruit early, it's a sign we don't have enough leaves," he said.
This year, he was expecting to harvest seven tons per hectare (almost three tons per acre) from a fourth-leaf planting of Sweetheart on Colt trained to the steep leader system. He uses girdling and Promalin (benzyladenine and gibberellic acid) to promote branching, and removes branches in the inside of the tree. The trees are 2.5 meters (8 feet) apart with 5 meters (16 feet) between rows.
"We're pretty happy because this is a very vigorous rootstock and because we have these four leaders we think the trees are in balance," he said. "Also, the production we're expecting for the fourth leaf, for us, is pretty good.
"Sweetheart is a pretty good variety for us because it's easy to have good production," he said. "In a full production orchard, we expect to have 15 tons per hectare (six tons per acre) of Sweetheart, and the production is pretty soon. There's no biennial bearing, so it's a good variety."
He also grows Lapins and Bing on Maxima 14 rootstocks. Maxima is not prone to bacterial canker as F-12 and Mahaleb are. Tree height is limited to 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) because it is against the law for workers to use ladders taller than 3.0 meters (10 feet).
The area receives 730 mm (29 inches) of rain annually. Walker has covered the orchard to protect it from frost, hail, and rain and thinks it's safest to leave the cover on from bloom until harvest. As fruit tends to be softer when grown under cover, he applies a foliar phosphorus before harvest to firm up the fruit.
Cherry harvest begins around December 22 to 25. He ships to the United States, Europe, and Asia. A return of U.S.$2 per kilo ($1 per pound) is profitable. Returns have varied from year to year between $1.5 and $3 per kilo. This year, he was expecting high prices as production is low overall in Chile because of poor spring conditions.
To produce ten tons of high-quality cherries per hectare (4 tons per acre) costs around $10,000, Walker calculates, and it takes around 140 man-days per year to get that production. Of the total costs, labor accounts for 60 percent, chemicals 30 percent, and administration 12 percent. However, Walker said it's difficult to get ten tons per hectare with Bing if there is inadequate chilling or pollinization.
Workers are hired under contract and are paid by the tree. They usually earn U.S.$20 to $30 for a 7.5-hour day and work 45 hours a week. The supply of workers becomes shorter every year, Walker said, as people would rather work in the cities than on the farm.