Jade Wisniewski stacks lugs of Sweetheart cherries in a bin at Howard Hansen’s orchard. The planting is covered by a hail net.
At Howard Hansen’s cherry packing operation, every single cherry is checked before it goes in the box.
Hansen, who operates CR and RK Hansen orchard and fruit packing company at Grove, Tasmania, knows that in order to beat the competition from other Southern Hemisphere suppliers he must ship large, high quality cherries.
Many of the cherries he packs are shipped by air to the United Kingdom, Europe, or the United States, where they compete against cherries that have been shipped by sea from Chile or Argentina. Air freight to the United Kingdom works out at Aus.$14 per 5-kilo box (about U.S.$1 per pound). Cherries bound for Taiwan go by sea, a 15-day journey.
Hansen said he tries to differentiate his fruit by its firmness and size, and aims to supply 32-millimeters (8-1/2 row) cherries.
"We’re asking very high prices, so we’ll try to do a better job," he said. "We’ll pick up every single cherry one at a time to make a decision on it, to make sure there’s no single cherry in that box that shouldn’t be there. That gives us the confidence to ship it around the world and ask a high price."
Sorters at the packing house are paid by the kilo, and samples are taken to check the quality of the fruit they sort. Workers who don’t sort with at least 90 percent accuracy suffer a 40 percent pay cut.
"They have motivation to do the job qualitywise and be productive," Hansen said.
"The worst thing we can do from our customers’ point of view is send second-grade with first," he said. "We also check the second grade because the worst thing we can do from the grower’s point of view is put first-grade cherries with the second."
Second-grade fruit is sold in Australia or the Middle East. Third-grade cherries are composted.
The cherries are sorted before being sized, hydrocooled, and packed. All are put in modified-atmosphere packaging.
Hansen said his system for handling cherries is expensive, but as long as buyers are willing to pay high prices it’s feasible. He packs cherries for fourteen other growers and charges them Aus.$1.75 per kilo (U.S.$0.63 a pound) for handling the fruit, plus the cost of packing materials and a commission for marketing.
Hansen grew up on the family orchard and returned to work there after college in 1995. At the time, the Tasmanian tree fruit industry was primarily focused on Red Delicious apples. Hansen saw an opportunity to plant Gala and Braeburn apples on high-density systems, and expand into cherries, which have become a major part of his business. Typically, he plants apples on the good ground and cherries on the poorer sites.
For cherries, he uses a multi-leader training system, similar to the Spanish Bush or Kym Green Bush, planting about 1,344 trees per hectare (544 trees per acre). In the early years, the limbs are headed back to stimulate branching and spread the vigor among the limbs. Mature trees have between 18 and 20 limbs and are short enough to be harvested from the ground.
By the third leaf, the trees generally have enough limbs that he can start to stress the trees to promote cropping, using drought stress and low rates of Ethrel. He tips the limbs during bloom to reduce the apical dominance and channel more energy into fruit production. "We think it’s important in helping us with fruit size," he explained.
Yields are between 10 and 12 tons per acre with large fruit size. Hansen said there’s a fine line between growing enough wood for good fruit size and allowing the trees to become too vigorous.
The cherry blocks have trickle irrigation. Sprinklers above the trees are used for frost control and for applying calcium chloride during rain to prevent splitting. The area typically receives 750 millimeters (30 inches) of rain annually, with perhaps 5 inches just before or during the harvest period. Hansen said he did not have proof yet that the calcium chloride was effective, but he thinks it helps. "It helps me sleep better," he declared.
Lapins is the major cherry variety grown in Tasmania. Hansen is also growing Sweet Georgia, a late-maturing sport of Lapins. Sweetheart doesn’t stand up to rain as well, he observed, though it might be an option for drier sites. He picked his first crop of Regina this year. Though there are questions about its yield potential, some of his rows produced the equivalent of 9.5 tons per hectare (almost 4 tons per acre) of 30-millimeter (9-row) and larger fruit. He used Sylvia as the pollinizer and in future plantings would plant alternate rows of Regina and Sylvia.