Cherry orchards in the Turkish countryside look similar to orchards in the United States, with dwarfing rootstocks, drip irrigation, and central leader training systems.
The Alara Fidan Company of Bursa, Turkey, is one of the driving forces behind Turkey’s rapid rise in cherry production and exports.
In a ten-year span, Yavuz Taner, chief executive officer of Alara, has vertically integrated the company by expanding its reach of cherry production, building a sophisticated cold storage and packing line, establishing a nursery to grow dwarfing rootstocks, and developing a marketing and sales arm to export fruit into the United Kingdom and Europe.
The company, founded in 1984, initially specialized in fresh black fig and vegetable exports. Turkey first exported cherries in 1990, with initial markets in the United Kingdom, according to Taner.
"When we realized Turkey had a big potential for cherries and that we could do something about it, we got serious about cherry production," Taner said. He recognized in 1996 that there was strong demand for cherries in places beyond the United Kingdom and began integrating the company.
"The year 1996 was a turning point for the Turkish cherry industry," he said. "Before 1996, the infrastructure was really primitive, I have to confess, but we had good quality fruit on the tree."
From 1996 to 2006, Turkish cherry production increased from 150,000 tons to 250,000, and cherry exports grew fivefold from 10,000 tons to 54,000 tons, Taner reported at the International Fruit Tree Association’s annual meeting. Although the United Kingdom is still an important export market, Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, and Italy are also now top markets.
In 2006, the company nursery grew more than one million Gisela rootstock trees to supply to growers in six different regions, although average yearly production is around 700,000 trees.
Cherry orchards in Turkey no longer look like those found in undeveloped countries, but now resemble those in the United States, with dwarfing rootstocks, central leader training systems, and drip irrigation. Orchard size has grown from less than an acre to anywhere from 5 to 300 acres.
Taner said that the modern packing house was a major but necessary investment. Almost all of the cherries packed are the 0900 (Ziraat) variety, but early and late varieties have been planted to extend the season. Because of the diverse growing regions in Turkey, their cherry season stretches from May to August, but does not begin as early as California, he said.
Labor costs are reasonable in Turkey, he said, noting that agricultural wage rates are about 15 percent lower than in the United States. Producing cherries of export quality requires a lot of labor for pruning, picking, and packing. Availability of labor is a factor when he considers areas suitable for growing export cherries.
Orchardists who grow for Alara are chosen carefully, he said. "There’s a long list of things we evaluate. We had to teach growers things like how to use pesticides properly and help them become certified under EurepGAP (now GlobalGAP). But all growers are certified."
Grower education is an ongoing process. Taner estimated that the company hosts 200 educational meetings each year.
"Retailers tell us that there’s no roof for cherry demand," he said. "We have to find ways to make cherries more convenient for people to purchase."
In Turkey, cherries are sold on every street corner, and consumption is quite high, about 3 kilograms (6.5 pounds) per person, he said. "But in Europe, people have to go to the supermarket to buy cherries, and they usually only go once or twice a week. Consumption of cherries in the United States is only around 700 grams (1.5 pounds), he added.
"I believe there is a big, big potential for increased cherry sales," Taner said. "We are learning how to grow good cherries in terms of quality and yield. We just need to do more on the retail or selling side."
In an effort to further expand their export market window, Alara created a partnership with two packing plants in Argentina. Their Southern Hemisphere cherries are exported from November to February to European markets. The Alara Global project increased their export season to 180 days, he said.
Horticulture on TV
Yavuz Taner is one busy guy. In addition to heading a large fresh cherry and fig growing and packing operation, he produces a weekly television show to educate growers in Turkey and several European countries.
The show, called Modern Horticulture, runs twice during the weekend and covers topics like pruning, tree nutrition, irrigation, pest control, and marketing. This is the third year for the show, which Taner likens to the Discovery Channel.
He pays $2,000 to sponsor each hour-long program, a cost that doesn’t include the staff that is gathering video, information, and producing the segments. He is now starting to sell advertising to help cover production costs.
Taner recognized that a great educational effort would be needed to bring the Turkish growers into the new millennium of cherry growing. "Before, growers thought that if cherry trees were pruned, they would be the ones that died," he said. "That’s why early on, the 0900 variety of cherries were so large—yields were low because of growing methods. Now, growers use bees and pollinators for pollination, they have changed from flood to drip and sprinkler irrigation, and learned about fertigation and foliar applications."
The television show reaches growers and urban gardeners in Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Belgium, Germany, and Spain.