Chilean cherry grower Pablo Garcés (fourth from left) is general manager and part owner of 800 growing hectares (almost 2,000 acres), half of the acreage is planted with cherries.

Chilean cherry grower Pablo Garcés (fourth from left) is general manager and part owner of 800 growing hectares (almost 2,000 acres), half of the acreage is planted with cherries.

Former agronomist Oscar Letelier decided to become an orchardist the hard way by growing organic cherries. He is one of very few certified organic cherry growers in Chile.

In 2001, Letelier planted his first orchard on 19 hectares (47 acres) of land at Placilla, near San Fernando, where organic vegetables were formerly grown. He said he decided to farm organically because he wanted to avoid contaminating the environment and because he subscribes to the organic philosophy. Economically, he feels he would be better off farming conventionally.

He has Lapins cherries on Colt rootstocks spaced 3 meters (10 feet) apart with 4.5 meters (11 feet) between rows. The nursery trees were grown organically and after planting in the orchard were trained at first like the Spanish Bush, with multiple leaders. Every branch was cut by a third to generate more laterals to fill the space. But because of the poor quality of the trees and lack of nitrogen in the soil, they did not grow as vigorously as he hoped, with the result that they lack fruiting wood.

The trees are planted on berms, and he puts compost around the trunks of the trees each year. Corn stalks and leaves are a major ingredient in the compost because corn is an important crop in that area. In the spring, he applies potassium sulfate, boron, and guano rojo (a seabird manure that contains 5 percent nitrogen and is high in micronutrients, such as phosphorus).

Chilling hours

He is happy with the production and quality of Lapins, but Bing does not yield well enough because of poor fruit set, he said. He believes there is a direct relationship between the number of chilling hours and the amount of production. With New Star, production is not a problem; the problem is selling the variety, he said. He planted Kordia, but after years and years of flowering but no crop, he grafted them over to another variety. In the more southern areas of Chile, which have more chilling hours, Kordia can be productive, he said. As an organic grower, he cannot use Dormex.

The Lapins block produced its first crop of three tons per hectare (one ton per acre) in 2004. Production reached 14 tons per hectare last year, but was down to eight tons this season because of poor spring weather. With a 14-ton crop, the fruit was small, was difficult to pick and sell, and didn’t transport well, Letelier said. His target production is nine tons per hectare, with 90 percent packable fruit.

The biggest challenge for him as an organic grower is weed control. He can mow between rows, but has difficulty controlling weeds on the berms where the trees are planted. The hardest weeds to control are Bermuda grass and sorghum. The berms were designed to ensure good drainage of the root zone to avoid problems with phytophthora. He now thinks it was unnecessary.

The most challenging pest is cherry slug, which can be controlled with sulfur, while a mixture of copper sulfate and lime is applied to control bacterial canker. He uses a trichoderma fungicide and a composted extract of orange peel for botrytis. In the winter, he applies mineral oil and lime sulfur.

Organic cherries are comparatively expensive to buyers. Most of his production goes to the United States and Canada. The average return to the farm from 2005 to 2007 was U.S.$4 per kilo ($1.82 per pound). Last year, his returns were down because of postharvest quality problems.