Today (June 29) marks the official start of the British cherry season with growers predicting a record 5,000 tonne production this year, more than double last year’s yield. PBUK speaks with Matthew Hancock, managing director of specialist stone fruit sourcing company Norton Folgate and chairman of industry body, Seasonal Cherries.
A cool dry winter complemented by recent warm weather across the UK has created ideal conditions for this season’s crop, described as one of the sweetest, juiciest and largest in recent years.
Production techniques have changed significantly in the last decade with some major advances in technology, while growers have switched to rootstocks that produce more fruit.
“We have seen the industry move from traditional Colt rootstocks with highly vigorous growth, producing lots of wood but less fruit to today’s dwarfing rootstocks which enable controlled growth of trees whose energy is diverted into fruit production and not vegetative growth,” Hancock says.
“The result is significantly improved yields with better and consistent fruit quality. Alongside the changes in rootstocks and varieties sits the advent of covering systems adapted for cherries.
“By covering a high percentage of our UK crop we can now better manage the vagaries of the British summer and protect the fruit from rain. Cherries hate rain because the flesh takes up the water and swells, while the skin is not elastic enough to keep up with sudden growth and has a tendency to split. Consumers don’t like split cherries.”
British cherries are grown in three main areas; Kent, Hereford and Scotland with a few sites in Hampshire and Essex.
Final volumes have not yet been calculated but growers are confident that good sized and high quality cherries will be available throughout late June, July, August and possibly into early September.
Cherries pack a nutritional punch
In the last 12 months, UK shoppers have spent £107,661,000 on the fruit which has pushed the cherry category by 26.8%, according to Kantar Worldpanel data.
The rise is attributed to an increased awareness from health-conscious shoppers recognising the nutritional qualities of home-grown cherries.
“British seasonal produce has seen good following from foodies and the wider public over the last few years,” adds Hancock.
“Provenance being fashionable has also helped. The fruit quality, freshness and being produced on our doorstep is also an important factor.
“There is no doubt that freshly picked cherries are some of the best fruits you can eat.”
Innovation in growing techniques
Developments in growing technologies are also helping to drive the category, explains Hancock, as producers have rolled out optical scanning technology for the first time this year.
“This technology takes pictures of the fruit using different types of light. Each cherry is photographed several times and the sophisticated software systems can interrogate the data to detect defects, sizes, shapes and colour in order to segregate this fruit and sort it mechanically,” he says.
“This is a game changer for the industry around the world. It allows producers to manage larger volumes of cherries, with a smaller labour force, and get a better job done than could be done with the naked eye.”
Talking about what’s next for the cherry category, Hancock adds that R&D work is key to finding new varieties to extend the season.
“There is continued focus in developing techniques to reduce rain splits both in varietal developments and in sophisticated fertigation techniques.
“The future will see the season being extended with new varieties both early and late season. There continues to be trials with varieties from around the world to assess their suitability to our climate.”