Chile cherries - the red tsunami
In Chile, cherries are referred to as the Red Tsunami because around 80% of the crop needs to be picked in the five weeks from late November to the end of December.
The export cherry crop is estimated to be approximately 97,000 tonnes and approximately 78,000 tonnes of these have to be picked in that five week period. By the time you consider the impact of export packout, it is probable that more than 100,000 tonnes are required to be picked in those five weeks.
It is estimated that the full potential of the 2016/17 cherry export crop was 160,000 tonnes if growing season weather conditions across the whole cherry industry had been favourable with no adverse climatic events. Data on past season crops shows that their cherry crop has never managed to get anywhere near the estimated potential. The best they have achieved in recent years has been approximately 65% of estimated export potential.
In 2016, official data on planted area estimated the area planted to be between 24,000 and 25,000 hectares, up from around 13,000 hectares in 2010. Because a lot of growers raise their own trees, there are considered to be substantially more cherries planted, probably well over 30,000 hectares
now and increasing at approximately 3,000 hectares per year.
Present bearing area is approximately 20,000 hectares.
As much of their planted area has yet to come into production, the Chilean cherry crop production will increase rapidly towards an estimated potential export production capability of 225,000 to 250,000 tonnes by 2020. Judging by their past export recovery, it is unlikely that much more than 60% of this potential crop will be exported. Even so, this is 135,000 to 150,000 tonnes and that is an awful lot of cherries. Approximately 27 to 30 million 5kg cartons compared to the 20 million 5kg cartons they are exporting at present.
Chile is very optimistic about the future of cherries because relative to total world cherry production which is estimated to be 2.6 million tonnes, Southern Hemisphere production is only 4.3% of the total. With so much production in the Northern Hemisphere, which is also increasing rapidly, the market is being expanded to accommodate this production so this will pull “off” season Southern Hemisphere niche market demand along with it.
In recent years, Chinese cherry production has the most rapid growth rate expanding from 140,000 tonnes in 2006-2008 to 250,000 tonnes in 2015. Among Southern Hemisphere exporters, Chile dominates with between 87% and 90% of the total, followed by Australia, New Zealand and then Argentina. There are also very small amounts from South Africa.
At present 82% of their cherry crop goes to China. 17.6 million 5kg cartons are being exported there giving a farm gate return of US$5 per kilogram. They think the market potential in China maybe almost 30 million 5kg cartons but to expand the Chinese market to that volume would see farm gate returns fall to US$3 per kilogram, a return they believe their more efficient producers could survive.
USA is their second most important market taking 6.4% of present exports. The rest of Asia including Korea takes 3.7%, Latin America 2.4% and Europe 1.3%. It is clear that they need to put more effort into market diversification. The Latin American economies are depressed at the moment due to low prices for their main exports being oil and minerals. When these economies recover, Latin America will absorb more of their cherry crop and may become an outlet for lower value grades and sizes. As volume goes up, it will be necessary to improve quality, particularly dropping smaller sized fruit from their premium markets to maintain price and grower returns.
As far as I can ascertain most of the Chilean cherry crop is shipped by sea freight. Shipping times are: This means that by the time taken on shore logistics and movement through the marketing chain in the importing country is factored in fruit could be up to 60 days between tree and consumer. This is a big ask for a highly perishable summerfruit.
Chile has done an incredible amount of research and development into cherry post-harvest behaviour and controlled atmosphere storage using semi permeable polythene film designed to control gas exchange to achieve this length of storage life.
Harvesting maturity is also critical for long term storage. For acceptable outturn, cherries need to be harvested relatively early in their ripening period at the red to dark red colour stage. As cherry fruit size and weight increases rapidly through the ripening period having to harvest this early must be reducing yield and fruit size potential. Incidentally, for market acceptance, cherry stems must appear fresh and green and this is a real challenge in their hot climate. To maintain stem colour picked fruit needs rapid cooling. I am sure their rapidly expanding cherry crop is going to put real pressure on their ability to harvest and pack the crop swift enough to achieve the necessary storage and quality requirements.
VARIETIES AND ROOTSTOCKS
Recent planting data shows the following varieties are the ones most widely planted in recent years.
Bing is still an important variety for them and among the newer varieties Skeena and Kordia have been planted in recent years. Kordia is a very high quality shy cropping variety harvested in late mid season and is followed by Regina, another shy cropping, high quality variety. At present, both these varieties command higher prices than Bing, Lapins and Sweetheart.
Colt in the dominant rootstock for self fertile precocious varieties such as Santina, Lapins and Sweetheart, as well as Bing. Gisela 6 is the preferred rootstock for shy cropping varieties such as Regina and Kordia. Other rootstocks they use include Maxima 14, Gisela 5 and 12. Maxima 14 produces a tree approximately 70% the size of Colt and is generally more productive than Colt under their conditions because it stands up to their harsh, central valley climate better than the more dwarfing Gisela rootstocks. Gisela 12 gives a tree 60% the size of Colt, Gisela 6 is 50% of Colt and Gisela 5, 40% of Colt.
Approximately 70% of the Chilean cherries are planted at medium densities such as 4.5 x 2.5m to 4.0 x 2.0m and the trees trained as single leader pyramid similar to a medium density apple tree. They put a lot of effort into forcing branches up the leader using techniques such as bud notching and growth regulators to increase lateral branch numbers. As trees age, they cycle branches to replace older ones with new ones by stubbing back to encourage new shoot growth.
There has been a lot of study on tree behaviour and the effect of spur age, light exposure, leaf area and number has on fruit is well documented. They try and grow the crop on spurs aged between two and four/five years because this is where the best quality fruit is found.
While the majority of cherry plantings are medium density, single leader, there is a lot of experimentation looking into different tree management and intensification with the objective of reducing tree height, increasing yield and quality and improving harvest efficiency.
Intensive orchards on dwarfing rootstocks are receiving a lot of attention where climate and soil quality suit these weaker
Fertiliser application is based on production and as far as I can ascertain from the data they presented at the seminar, fertiliser applied for a 10 tonne crop maybe:
Fertiliser timing for nitrogen amounts applied varies depending on rootstock vigour. Potassium application amounts and timing are similar for all rootstock and vigour categories, 70-80% preflower and 2030% postharvest.
For fruit quality crop loads need to be carefully controlled. Cherry size sells. Their crop husbandry specialists have tapped in published research on crop load and backed up by their own experience are advocating the following parameters.
Quite a lot of effort goes into managing crop load. Cherries have complex buds so as well as spacing buds there is also some within bud thinning done in the dormant period. There would also be fruit thinning after fruitset where fruitset is too high.
As their markets come under supply pressure, I am certain more effort will be put into eliminating the lower value small size fruit. As far as I ascertain, they have not had much success with blossom burner chemical thinners to date.
The volume and quality of the Chilean cherry crop is very dependent on the weather at critical phenological stages in the tree. Although Chile has a huge range of climate and micro climate, the bulk of their cherry production is in the central valley and river valleys running between it and the coast in regions VI and VII between Santiago and Linares.
There has been some development north and south of these regions, including a small area in the far south east of the Andes focusing on late production. Lack of winter chilling in mild winters lead to poor bud break and weak flowering. Analysis of crop performance between 2006-2007 and 20162017 indicates that in three seasons over that period, winter chilling has been inadequate.
Stress and high temperatures in the postharvest period affects flower development and in sensitive varieties can lead to malformed fruit.
Weather conditions at flowering time, particularly rain, weakens fruitset.
There is a lot of effort going into managing these problems. Hydrogen cyanamide dormancy breakers are used where winter chilling is considered a problem. In warm regions where frost risk is low, it is applied to early varieties in July and in colder locations where there may be frost risk, application may be made to later varieties during the first week of August. Where there is good frost protection, these varieties maybe sprayed in late July.
There is research going into ways of reducing postharvest heat stress including applying Kaolin film products. Preharvest rain
is a big problem for them. Many orchards have rain covers. Others attempt to blow water off the trees as soon as rain stops. There are a number of commercial biofilms being investigated such as “Crackgard”, “Parka” and “Raingard” applied as a three or four spray programme from straw colour stage.
IMPLICATIONS FOR NEW ZEALAND CHERRY EXPORTS
Chile will clearly dominate the Southern Hemisphere export cherry business. Their rapidly increasing cherry production will force them to diversify into other markets, particularly North America and Europe to maintain their market returns in China at a profitable level. Argentina, while not an important export cherry producer at present, could also start to grow its export cherry business.
At present, the Chilean cherry product is a bulk one being stretched to the margin of the product’s storage potential.
This is a very different market from the high-end outlets our cherry industry is supplying with our fresh air freighted product. Comments made to me by Chilean colleagues who have seen our product in china say that our fresh product makes theirs look old and tired.
We should also recognise that the early maturity window they have to harvest at to maximise storage life, reduces yield potential as well as fruit quality. Our focus should continue to be the high end “niche” market where there are sufficient returns to support air freighting the product. In these, in respect of Asia, we are well placed with numerous commercial direct flights into many Asian destinations, whereas Chile has no direct flights into Asia. We are also well placed for freight charter flights too because we are only 10 to 12 hours flying time away from the market.
Sea freight time for us will be about half theirs too, but similar for North America. It is possible as the Chilean cherry industry comes under supply pressure for their sea freight product, some of their more progressive growers will begin to move into the high-end top quality market. If this occurs, it is most likely that their focus will be largely on the early season market aiming at the gap between the end of the Northern Hemisphere crop and the beginning of their high volume period when market supply is thin.
The presenters on the cherry industry at the Pomanova, June 2017 seminar and in particular, Carlos Tapia, Horticultural Consultant Oscar Ortega, Horticultural Consultant, Oscar Carracos, who’s presentations provided most of the background information for me on cherries.
Fig 5. Dormant/late dormant bud thinning is sometimes practised to reduce fruit numbers setting on compound spur sites.
Fig 4. Branching on a two year old portion of a young cherry tree leader. The swelling on the leader is due to high rates of growth regulator used to stimulate bud break. Note the use of tooth picks for widening crotch angles.
Fig 3. Kordia cherry trees in blossom. The rootstock here is Maxima 14, planting densities 4.5 x 2.0m. Single leader training with numerous small branches. Tree age is approximately five years.
Fig 2. Typical, mature cherry orchard. Note numerous horizontal branches and furled up rain covers, protected by black polythene wrapping.