Shawn Gay visits a high-producing Bing, Lapins, and Sweetheart orchard in the Puente Negro area of Chile.

Shawn Gay visits a high-producing Bing, Lapins, and Sweetheart orchard in the Puente Negro area of Chile.

Like other fruit-growing regions around the world, Chile is seeing a rapid expansion of its cherry industry. Its wide range of climates allows its cherry growers to have cherries on the world market at both the start and the end of the season when prices are high.

The country is 4,000 miles long, running from Atacama Desert in the north to Cape Horn, the southernmost point in South America, but is barely 100 miles wide, flanked by the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountain range.

Chile has 21,000 acres of cherries (about half the area planted in Washington) and exports close to 40,000 metric tons. In comparison, the Pacific Northwest exports more than 50,000 tons.

Most of Chile’s agriculture is in the central valley, with cherry and grape production concentrated between the latitudes of 34 to 39S, where the climate is Mediterranean. The most productive orchards are in the central region around Curic.

Many of the cherry plantings in Chile are new. The typical orchard has trees spaced about 8 feet apart with 15 feet between rows. Trees are commonly planted on dwarfing rootstocks and trained to a steep leader system.

Exponential growth

Andy Arnold, a Washington State cherry grower who took part in a recent tour to Chile and northern Argentina, said he first visited Chile in 2004 to explore the idea of establishing an orchard there, and was shocked by how many more orchards he saw on his recent visit. “It almost seems like it was exponential growth,” he said. “I was quite surprised by their paradigm shift.”

In 2004, Bing was the main variety. Now, growers are planting other varieties—predominantly self-fertile varieties from British Columbia, Canada’s breeding program—to address problems with poor fruit set and low production on Bing. Growers with older Bing orchards have been replacing rows of Bing with other varieties to improve pollination, but they’re also harvesting those varieties.

Arnold noted that cherry growing is challenging in the northernmost areas where the warm climate leads to sunburn damage on the wood and inadequate chilling hours. However, growers in the more southerly growing regions face different challenges because of the cool, wet climate.

Bob Driver, production manager at Dave Wilson Nursery in California, and a relatively new cherry grower, said he was interested to see the use of rain covers to reduce cherry cracking. One of the early varieties he grows at his orchard in Waterford has a long stem and tends to crack around the stem when it gets wet.

In the orchards in northern Chile, he saw evidence of cherry viruses, whereas in the more southern orchards, diseases such as bacterial canker, botrytis, and brown rot were of greater concern. A major advantage that Chilean growers have, however, is a lack of mildew.

World class

Dale Goldy of Wenatchee, Washington, said he was surprised by the extent of the new cherry plantings and impressed by how advanced the Chilean cherry growers are. “They’re using world-class growing techniques,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see as much of it.”

For example, they have a lot of experience with the dwarfing Gisela 6 rootstock, which has not performed very well in Washington, but appears to work well in Chile. However, Goldy was surprised to see some growers training their cherry trees to a system similar to the French axe used for apples, with limbs pulled down below horizontal to encourage fruiting. It is less successful with cherries because nutrients don’t move into the fruit on a downward-oriented limb, he said.

Arnold said some Chilean growers seemed reluctant to prune their trees. Instead, they are trying to restrict tree growth by limiting the fertilizer and using weaker rootstocks, he said. “They don’t want the tree to grow because they don’t want to prune. That’s definitely affecting their tonnage and their production big time.”

Appropriate summer and dormant pruning to keep the canopy in balance can help ensure good yields of good-quality fruit, Arnold said. Pruning the canopy leaves more energy for fruit production, and that should improve fruit set.

Goldy believes that the expanding Chilean cherry industry will be a significant player in world cherry production. “They’re going to be a big force in the Southern Hemisphere cherry deal,” he said.

Chilean growers have been learning through their experiences—just as U.S. cherry producers have—and as the industry grows, it will likely consolidate, although growers might not be aware of that yet, he said.

“There are some growers who are there now that won’t be there three, four, or five years from now,” Goldy predicted.

Australia

Darren Graetz, a researcher in Australia, was impressed by the expertise of the Chilean cherry growers and their willingness to try new practices. Australian growers, like those in other countries around the world, have been planting a lot of cherries recently, he said.

Australian and Chilean cherries are harvested in a similar season, but, so far, Australia is not trying to compete with Chile on the export market, Graetz said. Australian growers have a large domestic market and produce many varieties that are not suitable for export, but they will need to focus more on export markets in the future to absorb increasing production. That’s why he was interested to see what Chilean producers are doing.

The Chilean industry is very organized from an export point of view, whereas Australian producers tend to work more independently, he said. “We need to develop a unified focus if we’re going to get into export markets and stay there.”

Cherries in Mexico

Salvador Corral, a grower in Chihuahua, Mexico, said he was interested to see the South American cherry industry because he is relatively new to cherry growing. He has some test plots to find out which varieties will work best and was eager to find out what were the most important varieties in Chile and take information back to share with other growers in Mexico.

Few Mexican fruit growers have experience of growing cherries. “That’s why I’m here, to find out how difficult it is,” he said. “I thought it was almost impossible to grow cherries in Mexico. From what I learned, I think it’s not. It’s not so enigmatic.”

Corral will grow cherries only for the Mexican market. Mexico imports some cherries from Chile, but most of the imported cherries come from the United States. “When we see Chilean cherries they are really good in Mexico,” he said. “Good quality and size and good flavor.”

More than 30 cherry growers and industry people from around the world took part in the November tour, which was organized by Susan Pheasant of Wenatchee, Washington, and Chilean tree fruit consultant Mauricio Frias, and Claudia Acosta, who is involved in the Chilean nursery industry.