Cherry industry gains strength

Cherry industry optimistic over foray into Chinese market.

Canada’s largest cherry grower is bullish on the future of the industry.

David Geen, of Lake Country’s Coral Beach Farms, is busy not only with the usual autumn tasks of pruning some 250,000 trees over the next few months, but also with preparing the ground for new trees to be planted next spring, as he plans to expand his operation.

Eventually, he’ll have doubled his current production, with cherries being harvested from more than 500 acres at different elevations and on sites with different attributes around the Central Okanagan.

That will permit him to harvest cherries very early in the season from a southwest-facing slope in Kelowna, at a fairly low elevation, and very late in the season from his North Westside Road orchard, which is located above the valley and in the shadow of the hills.

It’s in a pocket away from the lake’s influence, where the trees are buried in deeper snow through winter and begin to come to life later in spring than at many of his other sites. By lengthening the season at both ends, marketing the sweet red fruits is easier and it spreads out the harvest so not everything is being picked at the same time.

That worked well this year, as the U.S. crop finished a couple of weeks earlier than usual, removing that competition from global markets — just as those cherries from North Westside Road were headed into the marketplace, he notes.

Much of his cherry crop is exported, so this year’s breakthrough into the China market is very important to him, and he’s been involved as chairperson of the market access committee of the B.C. Cherry Association to ensure the venture is a success.

The agreement reached last year with the Chinese government, opening the door to export of B.C. cherries into that market, is estimated to be worth $10 million, increasing to $20 million annually in the coming years.

However, the amount of fruit shipped to Shanghai, China this year was small since it was a trial project, with only 400 tons shipped from B.C., Geen explained.

During last summer’s trial season, a number of different protocols were instituted by the Chinese government to ensure no cherry fruit fly is exported with the fruit to China from B.C. That included the local industry hosting two inspectors from China so they could inspect fruit prior to it being shipped.

Another incubation test was performed on cherries from each orchard involved in the export program at the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre in Summerland to ensure none of the fruit flies were present.

This year’s restrictions made it difficult for some smaller growers to comply, but it’s hoped some of them will be removed now that a successful first year is over.

The industry is now waiting for a formal report from China on how their inspectors felt this year’s export program went.

“That market is critical to us,” said Geen.

“Not only is there a big population, but there’s a middle class of about 450 million people and they have a palate for sweet cherries.”