It’s been a terrific harvest. “Last year was terrible but this year was really, really good,” explains Michael Dallaway, who grows around 25 varieties on 7,500 trees across four orchards in Kent. (See his website here.)
Dallaway is a fine example of a minor renaissance in the English cherry business. Like many of his peers, he’s notably younger than the 57-year-old average age of the typical UK farmer.
This upturn is a recent phenomenon and the industry has still not recovered in volume from a dramatic slump from around 1950 to the end of the 1960’s, when many hectares of orchards were grubbed up. Back then, the size of the large trees and escalating wages made harvesting time consuming and uneconomic.
This top quality harvest in 2017 is not just down to the June sun. “The good crop is really courtesy of the cold, dry winter,” Dallaway explains.
Cherries require a certain amount of chill units to go dormant, which then results in increased vigour in spring. “It makes all the difference in the world,” Dallaway explains.
For modern growers, the picking season runs for around 6-8 weeks, although a three month season is looking increasingly possible - putting British growers at the forefront of innovation worldwide.
At this time of year, imports from Turkey are the main competition. The Spanish season ended some weeks earlier. Dallaway believes that this imported fruit is often picked a few days before peak ripeness. “If it was left on the trees for another three or four days it’s like night and day for the flavour,” he says, showing off his range of pure cherry juices.
Not far away, Mansfields is another pedigree Kentish cherry grower. This business manages 15 farms and around 3,000 acres. “I estimate we grow one in five cherries in the UK,” says Tom Robb, Commerical Manager.
Mansfield grows seven main varieties, including Kordia, Lapins, Penny, Karina, Regina, Skeena and Sweetheart.
These days, many growers use plastic tunnels to protect the trees from poor weather. Different grades of plastic offer further options, such as diffusing the light to delay the crop.
“Cherry season for most of us is a six to eight week picking season. If you delay the picking by a couple of weeks you can avoid the concertina effect.”
Back in the 1970’s, a key innovation was the semi-dwarfing Colt rootstock. Now it’s all about the dwarfing Gisella, which was developed in Germany. These are far smaller trees, about 7-8ft tall, with a higher yield. (Back in the 1950’s and earlier, cherry trees would have been two or three times this size).
“In the last ten years or so the whole cherry industry has been transformed,” says Michael Austen, expert guide at Brogdale, the home of the national fruit collection. “This has bought the size of the cherry tree right down to the size of an apple tree, which has meant that growers can now either grow them under nets or poythene tunnels.”
The development of self-pollinating varieties has also been a boost. They still rely on pollinating insects but don’t require different varieties to flower at the same time.
Post-harvest technology is also critical. “You can put cherries through a giant shower, a Hydrocooler, to chill down the fruit and reduce field heat”, explains Robb. The cherry stone, he explains, stores heat - so cooling down the fruit improves shelf life.
As a next step, storage in a modified atmosphere (MA) helps to control respiration of the picked cherries. “You are hibernating the fruit, if you like,” explains Robb.
“Cherry growing is very difficult,” he adds. “They tend to hold a premium price point because they are a limited season and difficult to grow.” Poor pollination is one hazard; split fruit from prolonged wet weather is another.
But he remains highly positive about the future of the industry. “Soft fruit is growing as a sector. And in the stone fruit industry many believe cherries can become the fifth berry. So more soft fruit growers are either planting cherry orchards or looking into it as an opportunity.”
English cherries are available in season from a wide range of wholesalers at New Covent Garden Market.