It’s cherry time! Bumper 2021 crop for SA growers

Good news for cherry fans! Dutoit Agri – the country’s largest cherry producer – says 2021 has been a bumper season, exceeding last year’s harvest. [Hopefully, they may be more affordable, Ed!]

Cherry Time (Dutoit’s cherry brand) trees are laden with fruit, with harvest season in full swing. Christiaan Rabe, estate manager for Dutoit Agri, says late rains are the biggest threat to the fruit. In fact, the operation has been deploying helicopters to blow excess water off the crops and keep the cherries in tip-top condition, ready to go from the farms to South Africans’ tables.

Cherries are typically synonymous with snow-frosted fields and colder climates. Less so, the baking heat of South Africa’s Ceres and Worcester areas. But the rich-red jewels are not new to the nation.

Cherry Time includes Nooitgedacht Farm, which has some of the oldest trees in the country, planted in 1890 – now 120 years’ old! Records say commercial cherry farming in South Africa started in 1904, in the Free State. Since then, the industry has increased each year, of which Cherry Time is responsible for a significant portion.

Rabe says the newer variety of cherries that have a lower chill requirement have been a game-changer for Dutoit Agri. “These have revolutionised where we can plant cherries and how long the season lasts.

“With the older varieties, we could only produce cherries for five weeks; now, our season can last for 12 weeks. Our lower-chill cherries we produce here in Worcester are some of the earliest ones we grow. Then, our Koue Bokkeveld varieties kick in.”

The low chill gene is very unique and has taken many years of painstaking breeding to perfect – what this means is that they do not require to be covered in snow and cold conditions during the winter to wake up refreshed and sparkly in the spring.

Cherries have always been seen as special – perhaps due to their scarcity and because their season tends to signal the start of the holidays. They’re a pivotal part of many families’s festive traditions. When they’re on the table, they tend to look the same, but Rabe says the trees couldn’t be more different.

A variety that works in Worcester, will not necessarily work in the Koue Bokkeveld, for example. “The need from the trees is totally different, in terms of chill requirements, the type of rootstock that’ll work in the region, the winter conditions the trees will tolerate, the soil quality and so on. These factors all determine what possible cultivar candidates we plant.”

A long-term fruit

The gorgeous fruit is also a long-term investment. It takes five years for an orchard to produce a viable harvest. That means the Dutoit team are ‘future trend forecasting’ all the time.

Rabe adds, “Cherries require long-term thinking. There are new cultivars and better rootstocks being created all the time, so it’s always a challenge to stay ahead of the game and know what will work best in our specific area.

“We import varieties from all over the world, but the bulk of the commercial plantings are of Californian origin that work well in our climate and produce beautifully big fruit.”

Cherries are the youngest and least researched member of the stone fruit-growing industry – they’re a small commodity compared to the rest – so Rabe says the team is learning all the time.

Currently, he has 450 people on the group’s Excelsior farm working hard to get the harvest done. Picking and packing is a precise art. Cherries must be cooled down quickly and correctly to 3˚C prior to packing to ensure the fruit stays impeccable. Once packed, they are stored at 0˚C.

“Once the fruit is off the trees, the real work starts to ensure the quality and firmness is maintained.”

Cherry Time is currently the largest producer of  cherries in South Africa with a strategic focus on maximising export. Cherries can currently be bought from the Cherry Time website, with to-your-door delivery in the Western Cape and to pick-up points across Gauteng and Durban. They’re also available from Pick n Pay and other select retailers.

Source: Dutoit Agri

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