Cherries on top
herries are a traditional treat at Christmas. The juicy red berries are synonymous with a lavish Christmas lunch, both in their fresh form or incorporated into a special dessert.
But before asking why Australian cherries have a high price tag, it would be wise to discuss their growing requirements with a local farmer.
Carol Dymock, who has more than 500 cherry trees on her property south-east of Manjimup, said cherry trees were the “princesses of the fruit world”.
“Cherries grow best in a low-chill climate. If it doesn’t get cold enough, the trees will not grow fruit,” she said.
“If it rains too much during October while the cherry trees are flowering, the bees can’t get to them, which is essential for good fruit growth. Late rain on cherries during November and December is also bad for fruit quality.”
With a successful year dependent on the perfect weather pattern during the months before fruiting and while cherries are ripening, it is easy to understand why some growers have pulled out trees.
Once cherries are ready to be picked, the drama really unfolds. Netting is required to protect the fruit from birds and an experienced team of pickers is essential to harvest cherries carefully when they are at their optimum.
Mrs Dymock said cherries were a relatively delicate fruit to handle and required hand-picking as well as careful handling post-harvest.
“Cherries must be hand-picked at the top of their stem to protect the cherry nodule for next year’s fruit,” she said.
“I pick myself and also have the help of my children. If you don’t educate the people you have picking for you, it can affect fruit quality in following years.”
Mrs Dymock said she was lucky to have such a supportive family who helped each year in their own ways.
She said pickers used pouches that are filled to about 5kg of fruit at a time. The contents of these pouches are then carefully put into a crate containing only between 15kg and 16kg of cherries.
The cherries are then taken to the sorting shed, where they are washed and dried before being sorted.
With so many weather variables in the lead-up to producing good fruit and the attention to detail required to pull off a successful delivery of cherries from farm to plate, it becomes easier to understand the cost associated with these delicious marvels.
Mrs Dymock said value-adding was one way to manage the uncertainty of each season.
In 2011, she started making jam from cherries that were not suitable for the fresh fruit market. This aspect of the business has now become a full-time operation, with cherry jams and relishes being cooked all year to meet demand.
Cherry Valley Farm jam and relish can now be found in a number of South West cafés and businesses, including Cherry Box in Manjimup, the Nannup Café, Cambray Cheese, Nic’s Café in Mt Barker and the Bluestone Café in Boyup Brook.
One venue, Tall Timbers in Manjimup, uses Cherry Valley Farm jams on its famous scones and Cherry Valley Farm barbecue sauce on its steak sandwich. The sandwich was awarded the Best Steak Sandwich in Country WA this year.
Mrs Dymock said she has been lucky to have such great support from these local businesses.
Her preserves are also sold at farmers’ markets and local school fetes throughout the year. Fresh cherries are added to the market stalls when the fruit is in season.
Family has played an important role in the success of Cherry Valley Farm. Not only are Mrs Dymock’s children involved at harvest, they also represent the business at events and help to manage a social media presence on Facebook.
Mrs Dymock said she produced 48 different lines of jams, sauces and relishes, with all produce used grown by herself, neighbours, family or sourced locally.
Cherry Valley Farm’s nine most popular jams include the original cherry, cherry and brandy, cherry and rhubarb, cherry and guava, cherry and mulberry, cherry and almond, cherry and macadamia, cherry and walnut and cherry, rum and raisin.
The range also includes a popular cherry chutney and tomato relish, sweet chilli tomato garlic sauce and a barbecue sauce.
Mrs Dymock said she used all her own recipes, both those handed down from her family and some she has developed herself.
She said attending genuine farmers’ markets and local school fetes was a great way for her to talk to the public about her produce.
Allowing people to taste jams and relishes at these events was also a good way to obtain feedback on what people liked.
“We are now at the point where we are being approached by South West venues to stock our produce because of our reputation,” she said. “It is a great feeling making something that is so appreciated.”
Facebook has also been a great way to promote the business. Mrs Dymock’s daughter and son-in-law, Debbie and Shane Muddle, are responsible for managing her social media presence.
“Debbie and Shane are my right-hand sales team,” she said.
“I have five children and they are all involved in their own way giving a hand, especially during the Cherry Harmony Festival.
“This is our busiest time of the year, with picking, farm-gate sales and being involved with the festival.”
Mrs Dymock said her children would never let her forget the day they had to pick cherries in 44C heat.
“I wouldn’t be able to run my farm without the support of my family and friends,” she said.
While Mrs Dymock has always been involved in farming, growing up on a property in the South West and also marrying into farming, it was after surviving breast cancer in 2009 that she purchased her own property to farm herself.
The 3.2ha property was home to 12 varieties of cherry trees, as well as other fruit trees such as apricots, plums, nectarines, apples and pears and a small vegetable patch.
“I have tried counting all the cherry trees. It’s easy to say we have over 500 trees in total, with three of our cherry tree varieties being the Merchant, Van and Sweetheart, which produce the popular large cherries,” Mrs Dymock said.
The previous owner of the property and Mrs Dymock’s father gave her advice on how to manage the trees, but a lot she has learnt through a common-sense approach.
“I use minimal spraying and have gone back to basics. I use a lot of sheep manure for fertiliser and I use chickens and ducks to help manage pests as well as netting to protect the fruit from birds,” she said.
Mrs Dymock said rabbits often chewed through the netting used to protect the fruit.
She said some cherry trees on the property were 24 years old, with tree ages ranging down to seven years old. Cherry trees need to be four or five years old before they produce fruit, with it hard to quantify how many kilos of cherries on average each tree produces because of the variations in season.
Mrs Dymock said so far the season was looking hopeful because of the cold winter, but late rain could affect cherry quality. She said she would not know the result of the 2016 season until early January next year.
Cherries do not ripen off the tree and to ensure her cherries were picked at the right time, Mrs Dymock tests her fruit before picking.
“I keep everything I sell at the farm gate nice and fresh. If it doesn’t sell fresh, it is turned into jam,” she said.
While there was huge demand for locally grown cherries, Mrs Dymock said imported cherries sold in supermarket chains were having an impact on the viability of the Australian cherry industry.
She warned that if the impact of imported cherries on the local market was not kept in check, more local producers would continue to pull out their cherry trees.
“Cherry farming is very labour intensive,” she said. “The big supermarket chains need to be careful when it comes to importing cherries, otherwise we will lose a lot of our local cherry produce.”
For those considering a future in the industry, Mrs Dymock’s advice was to “do your homework” and look into why some Australian producers were exiting cherry production.
Looking to her own future, Mrs Dymock felt there would continue to be demand for locally grown cherries and she was hopeful value-added products would continue to help her business through variations in the season.
She said she was focused on continuing to improve the quality of her fruit and preserves, while supporting local farmers’ markets and events in the South West.
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