By Forrest Scharf, PAg, Provincial Specialist, Fruit Crops
Although membership in Canadian Cherry Producers Inc. (CCPI) and acreage statistics for the sour cherry industry have remained steady for the past few years, there have been a few dynamics that are changing the spectrum of possibilities within the sector. As noted by CCPI President Jocelyn Zurevinsky, the organization’s activity had been fairly low-key throughout 2018, and the organization largely served as a conduit for providing information to its members. That being said, the new CCPI website and various other venues for information about University of Saskatchewan sour cherries, have garnered increasing attention from large-scale buyers.
The increasing number of large-scale buyer enquiries has prompted some discussion about how to handle common marketing needs. To date, development of a common marketing body has not been perceived as necessary. The industry is somewhat caught between not having quite enough seasonal local demand to sustain increased investment in production and not having enough production to supply large markets. CCPI has been providing demand enquiries to its membership, then leaving it to each business to pursue the market possibilities. In many instances, the scale of demand is small enough that individuals and businesses can meet the demand for businesses like breweries, wineries, distilleries, restaurants and small food processing companies.
Some enquiries coming from large-scale businesses stem from a lack of European and Michigan production caused by adverse fluctuating weather patterns in the past few years. Unfortunately, 2018 was a disastrous year for cherry production in Saskatchewan. However, some other large scale demand is for specialized product needs that are expected to remain more consistent within the mid-term timespan. The specialized product initiatives are likely the best fit for moving the industry forward in the short-term. Also, the inclusion of First Nations cherry growing initiatives would match industry growth needs. Often the larger scale producers expect cherries to be priced low, but Saskatchewan producers usually require higher prices than the large volume buyers are willing to pay. Specialized product purchasers usually support higher margins.
For some growers, availability of labour and/or availability of mechanical harvesters can also be a challenge. To capture fruit quality, fruit needs to be harvested and rapidly placed in cold storage. In 2019, fruit was able to stay on the plants until the first week of September, without dramatic loss of quality, which is late compared to most years. Unfortunately, after the first week of September, fruit quality deteriorated rapidly and growers without available labour lost the value of their fruit. In an ideal world it would be better to have an inventory of what producers have available, and match the supply to better quantified buyer needs. This would ensure all of the production gets harvested. Updated collection of industry statistics would also help growers understand how to position themselves and develop value chains.
In 2019, cherry yields were significantly higher than they had been in 2018, but due to very cold 2018-19 winter, combined with hot, dry summers and other environmental stressors, some plants were weakened and developed a lot of blind wood, a physiological condition in which only a tuft of terminal buds develop flowers or leaves. In most instances where the “blind wood” is widespread and the plant productivity has declined, the best option for those growers will be to cut the top-growth off the plant. Production will not occur the year after top removal, but in subsequent years, productivity to mature plant levels will return rapidly since the new growth is supported by mature root systems. Some growers have used this technique to rejuvenate their orchards and have found that it has numerous management efficiency benefits.
For more information about top growth removal and dwarf sour cherry management, please contact Forrest Scharf, provincial fruit specialist.