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(Photo: Getty Images)
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New WorldMarch 25, 2019

Getting to know your food chain: Central Otago cherries

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

In the first part of a series in which The Spinoff gets to know who, what, where and how our food gets to our plate, Jihee Junn learns about cherries. 

The bright lights and smooth floors of the supermarket are a world away from the soil and sun, the plants, animals and humans which have toiled to create the food that arrives on the shelves. Most of us shopping in those shiny supermarkets have lost touch with where our food comes from and the people responsible for making it. Few of us know the chicken farmers or cheese makers or avocado growers who work to fill the supermarket, or how they produce the food we eat.  

This disconnection from our food has created an array of modern problems that affect our health, our environment and our society. Because we don’t understand the effort and energy involved in producing food it’s hard to appreciate its worth. As a result, far too much valuable food ends up in the landfill. This lack of understanding about the origins of our food has created a world where unethical and environmentally suspect farming practices have thrived. And it means brilliant local food producers have struggled to survive, as consumers choose the cheapest, easiest option.

So, in partnership with New World, The Spinoff is getting to know the food that lands on the shelves of our supermarkets a bit better. We’re speaking to the people responsible for producing some of New Zealand’s beautiful local food about how it’s produced, where it comes from, and what makes it unique.

In part one, we learn about the world-class fruit produced by 45 South cherries in Central Otago.

Cherry blossoms in Central Otago (Photo: Getty Images).

When we think of cherries, we think of sweet, juicy, succulent pops of flavour. They’re synonymous with summer, especially around Christmas time where their deep red hues herald the festive season. But where do they come from and how are they grown? According to some Spinoff staff, they’re grown by Santa at the North Pole before being delivered into Christmas stockings.

During this time, cherry supplier 45 South is running at full steam to keep New World shelves stocked. Located in Central Otago almost directly over the 45th parallel (hence the name), 45 South has been supplying New Zealanders with cherries for more than 30 years. The Spinoff caught up with Richard Cameron, 45 South’s sales and marketing manager, who has over 30 years experience in the fresh produce sector, who explained the fundamentals behind what it takes to grow, package, and distribute New Zealand’s freshest cherries. Who knew those beautiful spring cherry blossoms actually became our summer cherries!?

When is the cherry season in New Zealand?

Fresh Central Otago cherries are only available for a short period of time (around eight weeks). We pick our first good varieties around December 15. We have a variety called Chelan which is one of the earliest varieties and we’re the largest grower of that. But we also have a variety called Sentennial which is the latest variety harvested in New Zealand which takes us right out into early February so we’ve actually got the longest growing season of all the growers in New Zealand as well.

What makes Central Otago suited for growing cherries?

Central Otago has very cold winters and cherry trees need winter chill. If they don’t get a certain amount of winter chill they won’t set good crops. But also, unlike other major growing areas around the world, we more often than not have cool nights during the summer. It might get to 27-30 degrees Celsius during the day but during the evenings it’ll typically come down to 12-15 degrees Celsius at night. That gives the trees a bit of a rest and the fruit to becomes very firm and tasty. So Central Otago cherries are known worldwide for being the firmest and most flavoursome out there.

The Central Otago climate is perfect for growing world class cherries (Photo: supplied).

How many different varieties of cherries do you grow?

We grow more than 20 different varieties of cherries but 95% of the volume comes from just seven. Those seven main varieties are Chelan, Sonnet, Stella, Lapin, Sweetheart, Staccato, and Sentennial.

What’s the difference between the varieties? Is it a matter of taste, texture, colour?

All the cherries we grow are very similar in taste profile and it’s more just a matter of timing. Typically as the varieties get later they get better (firmer and sweeter) but the quality’s very consistent across the whole season.

How long does a cherry take to grow?

A blossom is typically in September/October and we pick our first fruit around the middle of December.

How are your cherries picked?

They’re picked by hand. Different growers do it different ways but the way we do it is that our pickers are very selective. They’ll pick the cherry by the stem and then singulate them (cherries grow in bunches, so they’ll actually separate the cherries). Once they go in the picking bucket, they’re not touched again by human hands as we have an automated packhouse. Almost everything for the domestic market goes into a prepacked 400, 700 or 900-gram punnets or gift boxes.

(Photo: supplied)

How long does it take for a cherry to go from being picked to the supermarket shelf?

We pick and pack everything on the day. Because we’re a very large packhouse, we have the ability to pack up to 80 tonnes of fruit a day. So the cherries we pick in the morning will be on a truck on its way to [a distribution centre in] Christchurch or Auckland that night.

For our international customers, we fly our fruit out of Queenstown and Christchurch and we can actually get it to Shanghai within 48 hours. A lot of other export countries will sea freight their fruit which might take three weeks to get to market.

How big is 45 South?

We’re New Zealand’s largest cherry operation. We own and manage over 350 hectares of orchards in the Cromwell area of Central Otago. We’re by far the biggest packhouse and also the biggest grower of cherries in New Zealand, making up about 40% of the total volume of the whole industry.

How many cherries do you package/produce per year?

In excess of 1800 tonnes.

Cherries being packed for distribution (Photo: supplied)

How many people work at 45 South?

We have 40 permanent staff and employ an additional 400 seasonal workers to help harvest crops in December and January.

So if you’re New Zealand’s largest cherry operation, why haven’t we heard of you guys before?

The reason you won’t have heard of us is because although we’re really well known internationally, everything we do in New Zealand is [under the] Foodstuffs brand. We don’t actually market 45 South as a brand in New Zealand to consumers.

What countries does 45 South export to?

We export our cherries all around the world with our key markets being China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, and the USA.

Does 45 South prioritise exporting or supplying the local market?

During December, we’ll support Foodstuffs with their Christmas promotions which take priority over exporting. But once we get to January our volumes increase significantly and what we pack for the domestic market in New Zealand would probably only represent about 10% of our total production. Last year we packed about 1,800 tonnes so [only about] 180 tonnes would’ve gone to the domestic market. They’re very sought after in Asia in January [because] a lot of cherries get gifted around Lunar New Year.

(Photo: supplied)

What factors affect cherry harvesting and crops?

The supply of cherries can be affected by a number of climatic conditions, with poor pollination, spring frost and rain at harvest being the biggest issues. Central Otago cherry growers have learned how to manage these issues but like all growers, the weather plays a big part in our success or failure.   

I love cherries, but why are they so expensive?

The reality is is that they’re very sought after, especially in the lead-up to Christmas. But they’re actually not that expensive in New Zealand after Christmas, especially compared to the international market.

This article was created in paid partnership with New World. Learn more about our partnerships here.

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