The West

Colour of Christmas
Picture: Iain Gillespie

Beautiful, crimson cherries are undoubtedly one of the most anticipated fruits coming into WA's festive season but if buyers can resist temptation until a little past Christmas, they will taste the pick of the crop, according to third- generation cherry farmer George Grozotis and wife Kathy, of Cherry Lane Fields.

"The later variety is always a better cherry," said Mr Grozotis who manages 10,000 trees at his family's Manjiump orchard which started life as a tobacco farm in the 1940s.

"Cherries picked later have more crunch, more sweetness and grow bigger but everyone, of course, wants them in time for Christmas, so we try to educate people on buying them a little later."

Cherry season starts in November and finishes mid- January before the budding process starts all over again.

"It's a big gamble growing them. All the hard work starts now (early February), when we look after the tree as much as possible by watering and fertilising to achieve strong buds. Then we put the trees to sleep (into dormancy) until September," he said.

Cherry trends have changed significantly over the years, particularly compared with 10 years ago when an acceptable premium cherry was about 26mm in diameter.

Today, cherries need to be about 32mm in diameter and Cherry Lane Fields has adapted varieties to suit market demand.

"The cherries my grandfather grew don't even exist anymore. They were much smaller and probably wouldn't grow as well down here now," he said.

"Climate change has meant we've had to introduce new varieties that suit the warmer weather, even though the Southern Forests region is still perfectly suited for cherry production and they do taste better down here.

"The region has very good water and the soils are excellent (a mixture of karri loam and sandy soils from jarrah and blackbutt country)."

The couple send about 70 per cent of production to longstanding customer Woolworths and the remainder goes to independent supermarkets such as IGA.

"The main varieties we grow are sweetheart, sweet Georgia and Simone. The sweetheart is more of a rounded, bright red cherry, whereas the sweet Georgia has more of a heart shape and a deep mahogany colour," he said.

"Simones are similar to sweet Georgias. I think they are most likely a mutation of that breed."

Harvesting starts at the crack of dawn, with Mr Grozotis' team picking while the sun is just rising, and stops once the temperature reaches 22C.

"Once cherries get hot, it's very hard to bring their temperature down," Mr Grozotis said.

"After the cherries are picked, they are transported from the orchard within 30 minutes, hydro-cooled and chilled for at least 24 hours before packing. This also helps with stem retention.

"Cherries don't ripen once they're picked like a tomato or apricot might. You can't pick them green - you can only pick them at their premium."

"I do love growing them - I can't really imagine doing anything else."

The West Australian

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