A locally-created cherry that has turned around the cherry industry in the Okanagan has been awarded the outstanding fruit cultivar award for 2012 by the American Society for Horticultural Science.
The Sweetheart cherry, bred at the federal Pacific Agri-food Research Centre in Summerland, matures later in the season and is self-fertilizing, so fruit sets even during cooler spring weather when bee activity can be hampered.
Lengthening the cherry season has helped rejuvenate the cherry industry, by expanding the months that fresh cherries are available to send to market and diversifying in order that inclement weather doesn’t affect all varieties.
The later season allows the industry to tap into new markets, later in the season, when conventional varieties have disappeared from the shelves.
Sweetheart was nominated by Denise Neilsen, a research scientist at PARC and a member of the ASHS, who noted that they ripen about 10 days after Lapin cherries and a week before Staccato.
The three varieties have helped to revive the industry in B.C., she said. All are products of the cherry breeding program at PARC.
“The sweet cherry industry has been a bright spot in the horticultural sector in B.C. and worldwide,” she commented.
In the 1990s, cherry exports only accounted for $500,000 in sales, but in 1999, that increased to more than $1 million, and by 2005, it had increased almost 15-fold, she said.
The cherry industry’s exports accounted for nearly $40 million in Canadian agricultural exports in 2011.
The variety has become an important international cultivar, planted extensively around the world.
Even in neighbouring Washington State it has become the second most important cultivar, next to the Bing.
Officially released in 1994, the Sweetheart cherry is also the parent of several other new cultivars, including Staccato, Sentennial and Sovereign.
All were part of the breeding program when research scientist David Lane headed it up. His work was continued by Frank Kappel who retired last year and the work is being continued now by Cheryl Hampson, who also heads up the apple breeding program.
Richard MacDonald was the technician for the program and has also now retired.
Orchardists who tested the variety included Kelowna-area orchardists Hugh Dendy and David Geen, as well as Kyle Mathison and Garfield Marshall.
Christine Dendy, president of the Okanagan Kootenay Cherry Growers Association noted the research centre’s efforts put B.C. cherries, as well as international cherry production, into a new realm of production of later varieties.
The award is ironic, she added, considering the federal government’s lack of interest in continuing to fund research and to support research centres such as PARC.
In announcing the award, federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz said, “Our government is proud to support internationally-recognized research and innovation in cherry breeding.
“Such cultivars have allowed growers to gain a top-notch reputation in the world marketplace as producers of high-quality crops.
“This boost to the cherry industry has helped stimulate and diversify job creation, benefiting our overall economy.”