The UK’s cherry industry, which nearly collapsed 20 years ago, has bounced back with predictions of a bumper harvest this year.
Cheap imports and high production and labour costs decimated the sector, but British growers are now set to produce about 6,500 tonnes of cherries – double the 3,168 tonnes picked in the UK last year and the highest for nearly 50 years.
Tesco says production is once again thriving and is now so strong that – along with Waitrose – the supermarket no longer needs to import the fruit during the British season in order to meet customer demand.
The UK season is notoriously short – from mid-June to mid-September, with late-season cherries coming from Scotland.
Production hit rock bottom in 2000 when the entire British cherry industry produced a paltry 559 tonnes, and with supermarkets stocking cheaper fruit from Spain, Turkey and the US.
Now more and more British growers are enjoying better yields by using dwarf root stock, grafted on to new tree varieties.
These produce smaller trees which can be grown in plastic tunnels, creating a microclimate with temperatures similar to the Mediterranean. Picking can be done more efficiently by workers on foot rather than on ladders.
Tesco cherry buyer Jordon Watson said: “Not only is the industry back on track after a long hiatus, but the quality of the fruit this year is first-class with soft flesh, ripe with juice and an unrivalled sweetness and taste.”
Sarah Neaves, whose family farm supplies Tesco with cherries, was one of the first British growers to plant the new smaller trees.
“Over the last 10 years we have planted approximately 40,000 and, coupled with polytunnels to protect the orchard, this has revolutionised our farm,” she said.
Another key move from Tesco has been to take an early ripening variety called Merchant, which has helped extend the British season by several weeks.
“British cherry growers are continuing to innovate and invest in new varieties and techniques every year to increase the reliability of the once incredibly volatile crop,” said Matt Hancock, chair of Love Fresh Cherries (part of the British Summer Fruits industry body), “meaning growers can adapt better to often unpredictable weather in the UK.”
David Matchett, head of food policy at Borough Market, said: “Cherry is the quintessential English stone fruit, however its short season means that most folks’ experience of it will be from an eastern European variety, which has been frozen, preserved, glacéed or concentrated.
“This is missing out on one of nature’s finest flavours – if life is a bowl of cherries, then these would have been hand-picked that morning from a Kent orchard.”