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For years growing cherries has been a risky business.
Rain at the wrong time, too mild a winter, too cold a spring or a lack of sunshine are all factors which can wreak havoc on a farmer’s crop.
Yet with new technology and favourable weather conditions so far this year, growers are expecting the longest and largest season on record in 2014.
This year’s blossom appeared on trees at least a month earlier than in 2013, thanks to the fifth warmest winter since records began.
While it took until July last year to pick the first cherries at AR Neaves farm in Stuppington, near Canterbury, this year it looks like the first will reach supermarkets in June.
“Hopefully our cherries will be the first on the shelves which is great promotionally for us,” said packhouse manager Sarah Neaves, daughter of owner Brian Neaves.
“This year we have had fantastic sunshine so the bees have been prompted to work. If it’s too cold they go back to bed but when the weather is lovely like this it’s perfect.
“Our season is earlier in Kent compared to other cherry growing areas like Herefordshire and Wales because we have better light levels.”
The good weather is not the only factor spurring the growth in the cherry industry, which experts from British Cherries expect to double in the UK this year to 4,000 tonnes (only 300 tonnes were produced in 2000).
In the last five years, Neaves has undergone a revolution with its farming, which has led to better and more reliable yields, much to the delight of the supermarkets.
They have introduced more resilient Gisela dwarf stock trees to their 35 acres dedicated to cherry growing, which can grow underneath tunnelling, protected from rain and frost.
Today, 90% of the gisella root stock is covered in tunnels. There are plans to cover the remaining 10% in the next three years.
“Every year we were disappointed when the rain came,” said Sarah. “It wiped out 50% of our crop some years. We knew we had to do something.
“Now we have different varieties and we can control when we pick it. The fruit is protected and we can guarantee the quality.”
Despite the guarantee of high yields, not every cherry grower is sold on the tunnelling route.
Only 30% of the crop at Torry Hill Farm near Sittingbourne is grown under cover, a ratio that owner John Leigh-Pemberton – son of the late former Bank of England governor Lord Kingsdown – will not change.
“There are question marks about the flavour and shelf life of cherries grown under covers,” he said. “However, that does not impact on size and appearance.”
He recognises tunnels are necessary however, adding: “About 30% under cover is enough to make it worthwhile so I can sell to supermarkets.”
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