Cherry sorting is typically an unpopular job. Most people would rather pick, says Hugh Dendy, a Canadian who’s growing cherries in New Zealand’s Central Otago region.

Dendy, who has 35 hectares (86 acres) of cherry orchard and his own small packing house near Cromwell, has devised a cherry sorting system that’s made sorters enjoy their work. Each sorter sorts individual buckets of cherries. The fruit is dumped into the central section of a plastic sorting tray. The trays are of welded plastic and are inexpensive to make, he said.

The sorter moves top-grade export cherries from the center to one side of the tray and the second-grade cherries for the domestic market to the other side. Culls go back into the empty bucket. If supervisors see more than 2 or 3 percent good fruit in the cull bucket, the sorter has to sort the cherries again.

Dendy pays N.Z.$3 per bucket (about 30 cents per pound), and the workers earn between N.Z.$150 and $250 per day.

"They work hard," he said. "At smoko [break] time, people don’t quit. Working on piecework changes their whole attitude. They don’t want to stop working. In Canada, when you announce coffee break, you almost get run over. It’s been a total turnaround. We have some people who prefer to sort than pick, which we have never heard of before."

Dendy does not know if the system would work in Washington or California, because of the smaller margins there.

He hydrocools the cherries for ten minutes after sorting, using pure chilled water that is changed every day. The cherries are then sized and packed. Dendy said he’s tried hydrocooling before sorting, but prefers to sort the cherries while they’re warm. "We think we get less damage to the skin from handling," he reported.

He aims to have the cherries packed within two hours of picking, and says half of the fruit is packed within an hour. He does not like to hold it overnight. "It’s a much better product when you can pack the fruit within an hour of picking," he said. "The sheen is nice, and the stems are better."

The cost of packing cherries in Canada is a little lower than in New Zealand, Dendy said, but the turnover of workers is much higher. He’s going to try using his new sorting system at his operation in Kelowna, British Columbia.

"We have a hard time keeping labor in the packing house, and I think it will cut down some on that labor turnover," he said.

Overall, Dendy finds it easier doing business in Canada than New Zealand, he said, because there are far more regulations in New Zealand.

At the nearby Molyneux Fruit Grower, Ltd., manager Tim Jones also reports success with paying sorters piece rate. Last season was the first that the company paid for sorting on a contract basis, with workers earning N.Z.$1.50 per bucket and sorting cherries on a conveyor belt. Productivity increased from 40 kilos per sorter per hour with hourly wages to 70 kilos per sorter per hour when they were paid by the bucket.

"The additional throughput by giving them an incentive surprised us," Jones said. "We thought we’d get 20 percent more input."

The company packs about 500 tons of cherries annually, but expects the volume to double. Jones said, with the increase in productivity, he is confident that they’ll be able to handle higher volumes in the next few years.

For fruit of variable quality, the company uses plastic sorting trays similar to Dendy’s so that sorters can examine each cherry individually. One sorter can sort between 30 and 35 kilos per hour with that system. "It’s a good way to sort it and still get the quality in the box that we require," Jones said.

The company employs mostly backpackers, but with most staying only two to three weeks, it is constantly having to train new workers. It recruits them by advertising on the Internet and working through a grower-owned cooperative, Seasonal Solutions, that seeks labor for all the orchards in the Central Otago district.

The minimum hourly pay rate is N.Z.$10.25 per hour, soon to be raised to $11.25.

About 70 percent of the company’s cherries are exported, with half the exports going to Taiwan. Other markets include Australia, North America, Europe, and Russia.

Average returns for all the cherries that go through the packing house are $10 per kilo (U.S.$3.20 a pound), and $12 to $13 per kilo (U.S.$3.80 per pound) for exported fruit.

"To get that return, size and quality are important," Jones stressed. The minimum size for sustainable returns is 28 millimeters (9-1/2 row).