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Cherry of a deal for B.C. growers signed in China Monday

Cherry farmer Sukhpal Bal is managing a construction site this summer, trying to ensure he has the regulation packing and shipping facility required by the Chinese government at his farm, Hillcrest Farm Market in Rutland. He will assemble a machine which takes 10 to 15 pictures of the cherries to monitor the weight and colour for optimal quality before sending the fruit down a conveyor to be washed, boxed and loaded on a truck without every hitting the outside air.  - Jennifer Smith
Cherry farmer Sukhpal Bal is managing a construction site this summer, trying to ensure he has the regulation packing and shipping facility required by the Chinese government at his farm, Hillcrest Farm Market in Rutland. He will assemble a machine which takes 10 to 15 pictures of the cherries to monitor the weight and colour for optimal quality before sending the fruit down a conveyor to be washed, boxed and loaded on a truck without every hitting the outside air.
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

Cherry growers let deal ripen through two-year pilot program with Chinese inspectors, rather than pursue low-lying fruit

With Monday's announcement of a signed deal to see cherries shipped directly to China, growers are breathing a sigh of relief.

Some 400 Canadian cherry growers—most in B.C.—already produce excess product.

"Often, the North American market will be glutted. Everything is ripening at once and, if there's an over supply, the price can go in the tank," said David Geen of Coral Beach Farms. "If you've got the option to export, you can roll with the punches a bit more and market your fruit where you have the best opportunity, as opposed to where have to."

Canadian cherries are high quality, with a following in the United Kingdom and South East Asia, but China is the golden egg, according to Geen, whose 500 acres, between Vernon and Kelowna's Rutland Bench, make him one of the top growers.

"The Chinese have a palate for the product. They value the high sugar and the colour. The deep red is seen as very lucky, and it's the colour of your blood, so it's presumed to be very good for your health," he explained.

Three-quarters of Chile's cherry production already goes directly to the country and the United States has long shipped to its ports.

Canada's niche is in the late hour of our fruit's season, August and September as opposed to June and July, and the quality of our science.

In addition to producing many of the world's top varietals at Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, the sector has developed a brown-sugar test to prove the crops are pest free. Added to our spray protocols, it was enough to secure a two-year pilot project to see if Canadian cherries couldn't skip the usual two-week cold storage quarantine demands of Chinese officials.

"Their quarantine pest is the Western Cherry Fruit Fly," explained Sukhpal Bal, president of the B.C. Cherry Association. "That's really what this deal is all about. In our negotiations…they wanted cold storage, but we've found a systems approach of doing the brown sugar test, as well as our integrated pest management."

To perform the test, growers essentially mash up a bunch of cherries in a bucket then pour a brown sugar mixture over the fruit and wait 10 minutes; if there are any larva in the sample, they will float to the top.

Western Cherry Fruit Fly really is not a problem for B.C. growers, says Bal, a fourth-generation Okanagan farmer working a 100-acre plot off Highway 33 marketed as Hillcrest Farm Market. Farmers use a range of chemicals with strict protocols on when to spray, how much to spray and how long after the fruit has been treated to harvest.

Nevertheless, the pilot program established to test their claims saw two Chinese inspectors spend the entire summer in Canada last year—costs largely paid by industry—clearing every single shipment bound for China.

This year, the inspectors will only be on the ground for a two-week audit, ensuring the growers registered to ship are following the established requirements, like stationing fruit fly traps at mandatory minimums through each orchard, and setting up fully-sealed shops so the fruit can come directly off the production line in a cold environment and onto a truck, without potential contamination from the open air.

Cherries have a one-month shelf life, so skipping the two-week cold storage other countries have been required to wait out is a big advantage.

"From what I'm hearing, the rest of the world is quite jealous we're getting in without the requirement, which is to keep the cherries just above zero before they're shipped," said Bal.

Apple prices have been falling, so orchardists are planting cherries in hopes of finding a crop with livable returns valleywide. Bal sees this deal as a landmark moment, likely to further alter the landscape.

"Maybe 20 years down the road, we'll look back on the signing of this agreement as the moment that reshaped the industry, and perhaps even the Okanagan," he said.

"My goal is to raise the profile of cherries. I love the wine industry and all that, but they kind of take a lot of the spotlight. We're hoping to show the public that we grow some excellent cherries here that are sought after around the world."

A slice of the cherry industry

  • the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland developed varietals like: sweetheart, lapins, sentennial and sovereign
  • the Canadian Food Inspection Agency spearheaded the trade mission, while B.C. Minister of Agriculture Norm Letnick and federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz signed the deal, which fosters millions in business for cherry growers, blueberry producers and ranchers in under 30 month bone-in beef
  • as a soft fruit, cherries are a high-demand crop, picked individually so the stems are left on, and are extremely susceptible to weather and bird damage
  • growers have done everything, including hiring helicopters and mounting blowers to the back of tractors, to dry the fruit when storms hit in the critical last few weeks of development
  • the level of rigour the Chinese government asked for is several steps beyond the demands farmers met to secure deals with Taiwan and Europe
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