Family branches into organics
Argentine orchardist takes inspiration from Washington.
Alberto Carleti planted this hillside orchard after seeing orchards in Sunnyside, Washington.
Argentine cherry grower Alberto Carleti partnered with a friend in Washington State to establish his latest cherry orchard at Tunuyn in Mendoza.
Carleti, who has visited Washington, said he was inspired by orchards he saw at Sunnyside and planted the 21-hectare (52-acre) orchard on a hillside rather than on flat ground as he normally does. He also used a different tree-training approach, using the central-leader system, rather than the usual multileader, with up to 1,000 trees per hectare (400 per acre). The soil pH is between 6 and 7. The highest-density trees are irrigated with a double drip line with water from wells 118 meters (390 feet) deep.
Varieties include Sweetheart, Bing, Tulare, Silvia, Santina, Celeste, Ferrovia, and Van. The multiple varieties in the orchard are designed to improve pollination. The trees always have plenty of blossoms, but they don't always set fruit. The hot, dry "zonda" wind, which typically blows in the springtime, dehydrates the young fruit.
Carleti began planting the orchard, called Alto Arboleda, five years ago in partnership with Mauro Felizia, vice president of Dovex Marketing Company in Wenatchee, Washington. Since Dovex is a major organic fruit producer, Carleti and Felizia plan to farm the new orchard organically. The only chemicals Carleti would normally use are Promalin (benzyladenine and gibberellic acid) to encourage branching, and herbicides for weed control. He plans to flame the weeds in this orchard. Cherry fruit fly and mildew are absent from that region.
Carleti is unsure what the premium might be for organic fruit, however. "There are so few organic cherries in the Southern Hemisphere, the prices are so high that no one is willing to pay extra for an organic cherry," he said.
Carleti usually uses Maxima 14 rootstocks, but in the newer parts of the orchard, the trees are on CAB 6P. "For this type of soil, CAB 6P has much better behavior," he said. "We need some rootstocks with vigor. The idea is to have small trees, but we need rootstocks that are a little more vigorous. We prefer to control the growth of the tree by pruning, rather than with the rootstock."
He hires workers through a labor contractor. The contractor is paid by the total kilos of cherries harvested, and he pays the crew based on how much they picked. On average, the pay is around 1 peso per kilo (12 cents per pound), or about 120 pesos (U.S.$ 31.50) per day.
The Carleti family has been growing cherries for three generations. Alberto's grandfather Vicente, an immigrant from Italy, planted the first orchard in Tupungato, Mendoza, in the 1930s. The family expanded into packing in the 1960s and has been exporting cherries for 20 years.
Alberto and his cousins Ricardo, Fredy, and Eduardo now run the business. The Carleti Group is one of Argentina's main fruit growing, packing and exporting companies, with 100 hectares (250 acres) of cherries plus peaches, plums, nectarines and grapes, and is growing cherries in several locations in the state of Mendoza.
"The idea is to have orchards in different areas to minimize the risks and have a longer harvest window," Carleti explained. "Cherry growing is erratic. We have areas of good production and areas of poor production, and we don't know the reason this is happening."
Normally, the company has cherries available the last week of October. Carleti said he is trying to grow cherries under cover so that they mature the first week of October.
At their Panquehua orchard in the early district of Las Heras, harvest of Marvin 470 cherries began in early November this season, several days later than usual because of cool spring weather. Orchard manager Fabin Vilches said that of all the varieties he grows, Brooks is the best, but he also likes Santina, which matures a little later. Bing produces too many doubles, and Van cherries are too soft. Marvin trees can become stressed if the interval between irrigation is too long.
Vilches used to irrigate with microsprinklers but switched to drip because of the wind. There's more irrigation water available than he can use, but the supply is limited by the orchard's pumping capacity, and electricity to power the pumps is expensive at between 1.4 and 1.8 pesos (37 and 47 U.S. cents) per kilowatt.
Carleti said that although his cherry production overall was down by 50 percent this year, he expected that fruit size and prices would be higher. Fewer cherries were likely to be sold on the domestic market in order to keep export markets supplied. The company normally exports half of its production, which last year amounted to 200,000 11-pound boxes. Prices last season ranged from U.S.$40 to $60 a box for the earliest cherries. The main market is the United Kingdom. Cherries are shipped by sea in modified-atmosphere bags and are certified to GlobalGAP and Tesco's Nature's Choice standards. Other important export markets are Brazil and Hong Kong.