Low-chill cherries bring new industry opportunities

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Low-chill cherries bring new industry opportunities

New low-chill cherry varieties will bring many selections to the international fresh produce industry. These cherry varieties have been carefully bred in a number of suitable countries by International Fruit Genetics LLC (IFG), which is based in Bakersfield, CA. 

To understand the development, FreshFruitPortal.com spoke at some length by remote video with Alwyn van Jaarsveld, IFG’s international commercial cherry manager, who works from his native South Africa. 

“Cherries are quite interesting because they’re one of the last bastions of fruit that is not commoditized; that isn’t produced somewhere year-round. So, you can’t go to any shop on the planet and find cherries 24/7. That means that the edges of the production are so-called “windows”. The fruit is worth a lot of money. It’s quite lucrative. Cherries higher priced fruit anyway and then when you have cherries when no one else does it’s worth even more. So that’s the end of the game,” outlines. 

Something that intrigued IFG’s co-founder and former Lead Plant Breeder, world-renowned fruit scientist Dr. David Cain, was that traditionally early season cherries, even if they could be found, were small and were not tasty. “It’s a frustration,” van Jaarsveld continues, “because everyone waits for cherries and when they finally see the cherries, they’re sub-par. It’s the same as strawberries were many, many years ago. Nowadays early season strawberries are a lot better. So, it was the same with cherries. We think he succeeded. They’re large, they’re good looking, and they eat really well. We don’t have the diversity of flavors like with table grapes but genetically, cherries are not as diverse as table grapes.”  

Still, with cherries, there is some flavor diversity. IFG has one uniquely flavored cherry in the pipeline.  That’s all the detail van Jaarsveld is sharing for now, but he adds that “Even if it’s just a red cherry, you want a large red cherry that is crispy, that is sweet, and has a very distinct cherry flavor.”

“To satisfy the early market, the variety needs to be low chill because that is typically your early fruit. In the case of California production, early-season cherries will not be produced in Fresno, nor Sacramento, but south of Bakersfield, which is generally not a cold area. In the warm end of the valley, cherries need to be able to withstand not only low chill but also extremely high heat, which is 110 on some summer days. The trees need not to be cooked so that’s why it helped us to have the breeding facilities in Delano and now McFarland. These are not cool areas; they’re extremely hot. The heat does a lot of varietal selection for us because the ones that don’t make it just don’t make it and we don’t worry about them because ultimately you can have the best fruit on the planet but if you can’t farm it, what’s the point? So, the heat does a lot of selection and on the back of that we’re particular, as well.”

Pred Alwyn van Jaarsveld, IFG International Cherry Manager.

IFG produces thousands of cherry seedlings a year, making it by volume the world’s largest cherry breeding company, van Jaarsveld says. IFG by has taken its low-chill varieties and is “hunting these niche climates across the planet. We’re looking for specific microclimates that give us earliness, which will give us quality.”

Beyond cherries, IFG is the world’s largest table grape breeder, which offers 48 patented table grape varieties. “Sometimes because we’re well entrenched in the table grape market so in many countries, we have extremely strong connections with great growers who are also excellent businessmen. But maybe they haven’t grown cherries yet. And maybe they’re starting to grow cherries now because the land they own for table grapes is suddenly suited to cherries. Ten years ago, this wasn’t the case but suddenly now, with the advent of our varieties it is the case and as luck would have it, right around the same time that we improved the scion material there was also a release of quite a good number of rootstocks, so it was really, really helpful because you need these two building blocks to build your tree. You need a good, vigorous rootstock that is able to withstand dry soils, hot soils, because when it’s 110 degrees up top, the soil isn’t much cooler than that.”

So, now there are strong cherry trees that are able to weather these conditions and produce a good crop and do it early. Thus, for 20 years IFG has produced all of these seedlings.  “We only release these varieties because we are very, very, very particular. Because there’s a lot of money in it. We cannot afford to have a false start. It has to be good. Because we’re building our reputation.” IFG owns ten patented sweet cherry varieties.

In February, IFG announced three new trademark names for its growing Cherry Cherryline which currently includes the highly sought, trademarked Cherry Treat™ and Cherry Glow cherry varieties.  

IFG has introduced the trademarked Cherry Cupid, patented as IFG Cher-ten.  This is a heart-shaped fruit with a unique and robust sweet-tart taste that will help usher in the cherry season.  While it is one of the more recent introductions, Cherry Cupid is performing exceptionally well in all test locations. Fruit from commercial orchards will begin to ship in 2023 from Spain and Chile, with cherries from California available in 2024. 

Additionally, has two other newly trademarked named cherries in the Cherry Cherry line: Cherry Nebula™ (patented as IFG Cher-eight) and Cherry Chap (patented as IFG Cher-nine). Cherry Nebula is a big round cherry with a long green stem and intense taste. Cherry Chap has intense color and taste. These early season cherry varieties both have a low chill requirement of less than 300 chill hours and are being grown in California, Spain, Chile, Australia, and South Africa. IFG has ongoing cherry research in all of these countries, among others.

Related articles: Chilean cherries hit new exports record

Until now, most cherry trees have required 800-1,000 chill hours of temperatures below 45° Fahrenheit. 

“The broad cherry research yields a whole mix of varieties. So sometimes in the breeding program you have a high chill variety that has amazing eating qualities or fruit size, or a number of admirable attributes and you want to incorporate that in your breeding program. You sometimes get some good high chill varieties, such as Cherry Moon,” which needs 700 chill hours. That long chill is unavailable in the San Joaquin Valley, but Cherry Moon does “really, really well” in cooler climes like those of Oregon and Washington. 

Such a discovery “wasn’t the main aim of the breeding program but if we do find one that is a winner, we’re not going to discard it just because it wasn’t what we aimed for,” notes van Jaarsveld. “Sometimes you are looking for a diamond and you pick up a nugget of gold. You’re not going to throw it back. That seems to be what we found. But the main aim is to go for low chill and early. When I say low chill it’s a given that means low chill-high heat. Our cherries actually want the heat. Between flowering and fruiting you have only 60 days on average, so you have two months. That means if you have cooler weather, some cloudy weather and too many cold spells, you’re never going to catch up. It’s forever going to be smaller fruit, less sweet.” To grow big, sweet low chill cherries, “you’ve got to be very particular on the locations.”

For varietal research and development, testing adaptability is critical. California is largely a perfect place to breed fruit which is why it is home to so many fruit breeding companies. The nearly perfect conditions in San Joaquin Valley come with largely homogenous soil types, and largely flat land, “so you don’t have a lot of topography to deal with.”

But when it’s time to transplant some of these varieties to Spain, to the north of Chile, to South Africa, or Australia, there may be alkaline soils, or a variety of soil types within a small area. Adjusting production to the soil for a uniform orchard is much trickier. Furthermore, other growing areas may have microclimates because of hilly conditions.

To expedite success, IFG took its research and development efforts to countries where it already had good experience and to countries with a culture of producing fruit.

For early cherries, Chile was an obvious choice because Chile is the single biggest cherry exporter in the world, with massive production of 100,000 acres. IFG’s cherry varieties have the strength for a 40-day transpacific reefer ocean container shipment from Chile to China. China absorbs most of Chile’s cherry production.

Typically, Chile’s earliest cherries are picked at the end of October. But in the north of Chile, IFG low chill orchards are harvested on about Oct. 14. “In cherry terms, two weeks ahead is absolutely massive. You have the magic combination of the right climate, the right rootstock and the right varieties. The stars align and then you have that earliness. That is also the point, if you have an early variety you want to have it on an early site. Because you want to bolster that earliness.”

Why not done before? 

“The other cherries are not as low chill. They knew the area could produce early cherries, but they haven’t found the varieties that could produce the quality fruit at the right size and everything else. And suddenly now you have the variety that can do this. And that’s the point. So that’s what we do. We collaborate with the industry partners that we have already. They have a really good idea of their own land in their own country, and we say: ‘Look, this is what our varieties can do. This is what they can’t do, so let’s work together and we’ll figure this out.’”

Chile’s huge cherry volume has traditionally been harvested in two and a half months, beginning before late October through mid-January. “You’ve just given them an extra 14 days at the front end of the season. Which gets the highest prices, so you can imagine the volume opportunity that sits there. And the best is you’re not displacing anybody out of the market. Because there is just nothing in the market. You’re going into a vacuum.”

IFG is underway in testing its low chill varieties in China because it’s the single biggest and most important fruit market in the world. The Chinese culture brings high per capita fruit consumption and generally a warmer climate suited to IFG’s early cherries. 

The firm is also working in Australia, “which sits on the doorstep of China,” van Jaarsveld notes. South Africa is a key fruit producer and “Spain of course a fruit basket inside the European Union. It can grow almost anything. So that is why we went for those spaces because we saw them as tier one countries, and they could be the doorway to many more. So now for instance we’re moving from Spain into France. We are moving out of the state of Victoria in Australia into other states. We’re looking at Argentina, Peru, we’re even looking at Brazil for cherries. We can also look at Mexico,” where high elevations will have temperatures bringing a perfect set of conditions for cherries from Delano.

California shows diversification opportunities

Some IFG low chill cherry varieties have been produced in Delano for 12 years. Some commercial blocks there are eight years old, although IFG is just beginning to really push the sale of the varieties. 

Van Jaarsveld says the San Joaquin Valley will bring opportunities for grape growers to expand to early cherry production. “We are seeing the advent of mixed farming in California. Growers start picking and packing grapes in May and June.” Generally speaking, growers are planting 70 cherry acres to harvest before their 500 acres of table grapes. “They decided to be in the cherry game on the front end because that’s where the money is.” They can use their grape money to start the cherry business and then eventually enjoy “this lovely little front-end bonus before getting into the more commoditized table grapes. They have all the facilities, staff and resources available. It’s just a question of doing it. They have the marketing contacts, and the other issue is the retail side. Supermarkets want to reduce their supplier base. If you want to deal with less people, less companies need to offer more. With one supplier they can keep it as lean and mean as they possibly can.”

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