Cherry farmers face losing half their crop to wet weather in lead up to Christmas
Less than a month from Christmas, cherry farmers are facing the prospect of losing up to half their crop to wet weather, threatening price rises for the stone fruit this festive season.
The prolonged rainfall in recent days has come at the worst possible time for the nation's cherry producers, putting early harvesting on hold in some orchards and delivering heartbreak to others.
Downpours can soften and split cherries, making them unsellable, and some farmers in the Orange region are using tractor-mounted air blowers and even helicopters to try to dry orchards, Adam Coleman from the NSW Department of Primary Industries said.
While the scale of crop loss is currently unknown, some growers say it could cause fruit prices to increase heading into the festive Christmas period.
"If there are widespread losses and demand kicks up, we might see prices move a little bit in the upward direction," Cherry Growers Australia president Tom Eastlake said.
"But at the moment it is still a big crop."
A bumper crop was forecast this season with early outlooks suggesting the 2017-18 crop could surpass 16,000 tonnes — to set a new industry record.
But Mr Eastlake said thanks to the rain some growers could have to leave more than half of their crop on the trees.
"It is heartbreaking, it absolutely can crush you in terms of looking at what you won't pick," he said. "We may see growers that are packing 50 per cent and 40 per cent and when that happens you lose your profit margin."
At Young, the self-titled "undisputed cherry capital of Australia", harvesting was less than halfway through before the wash out in recent days.
The Bureau of Meteorology recorded 84 millimetres of rain in Young between Friday morning and Sunday night — the same weekend the town hosted the annual National Cherry Festival.
"I have received about a quarter of our annual rainfall in the last 48 hours," Mr Eastlake said.
Further north at Orange the bureau recorded 64mm between Friday morning and Sunday night.
At Batlow, apple grower Barney Hyams said he stopped growing stone fruit in 1999 after "complete and utter wipe-outs" saw him lose his entire crop in two days.
Mr Hyams said he felt a lot of empathy for growers who might find the majority of their crop has been damaged when picking resumes.
"It means that they've lost their income for the year in some cases — it's a lot of hard work and heartbreak," he said.
Batlow usually receives more rainfall than Young which makes it less desirable for cherry growers.
But Ralph Wilson has persisted for the past three decades, growing both apples and cherries at orchards in Batlow.
He said his orchard has 15 pickers due to start in the second week of December.
Mr Wilson said the full impact of the rainfall was not yet clear, but having measured 80 millimetres of rain over the weekend it is likely the first variety of cherries will split.
"The cost of growing cherries is going up all the time and to lose a crop is pretty horrendous," he said.
'Silver lining' with major new export market in Vietnam
Young farmer Trevor Hall said it was not all bleak for the industry, with the reopening of the Vietnam market to exports after a new treatment for the Queensland fruit fly.
"It is a win for the Australian cherry industry because Vietnam is a very strong market for cherries," Mr Hall said.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries said a total of about 100 pallets of cherries have been exported from NSW and Victoria to Vietnam already this season.
"It is certainly a silver lining, there's an opportunity to off-load high quality fruit into those markets," Mr Coleman said.
Mr Coleman said new export access to the coveted China market was also expected to open up for mainland cherry growers before the end of the 2017-18 Australian cherry harvest.
The Chinese market agreed to accept NSW fruit under new treatment protocols for the Queensland fruit fly and industry and the government are working to finalise an arrangement and confirm a commencement date.