Caythorpe Cherries

April 2022

A trellis system which protects cherries and makes fruit more accessible for harvest.

The Bishells of Blenheim are in a sweet spot for Christmas cherries. The family-owned Caythorpe Estate’s latest move (in an ongoing series of farm innovations) is to introduce a trellis system called UFO (Upright Fruiting Offshoot )in the cherry orchard, to protect crop against undesirable weather events, and to lift productivity. The system also allows increased planting density - meaning more trees per hectare – and makes fruit more accessible for harvest.


The existing cherry orchard was planted in the mid ‘80s and older varieties have been replaced gradually over the past decade. The newer varieties are more marketable; larger, firmer, sweeter and with a better storage life.


Caythorpe Family Estate co-owner Simon Bishell says 20 to 25 years ago there were a lot of cherry orchards in Marlborough, but the vineyards have since pushed a lot of the cherry orchards out. There's only around half a dozen left now and with that, obviously supply has dwindled, but there's still a great demand for cherries pre -Christmas in New Zealand. 


“We see an opportunity to plant more cherries and increase that supply .They’re  a very difficult crop to grow, but we know the market and we know how to grow them, so we're essentially sticking to our strengths,’ he says.


The existing setup has a canopy above it, to protect the fruit from birds and costing about $100,000 a hectare. In the new setup, with the UFO trellising, the trees will be rain protected as well. Establishing a UFO system costs over twice the price of the old canopy but it’s also doing multiple roles, Simon says.


Simon believes the UFO sysyem has a number of advantages.


“With UFOs, we train the tree on a horizontal plane, which is the horizontal cord on along the bottom. And then we train upright vertical shoots that carry the fruit. The benefit is that we can have a closer planting density, so we can have more trees per hectare. So, in a given hectare, we can increase the production.” and we 


They can also take advantage of what’s called a pedestrian picking method. This means no ladders are required because the fruit is very accessible from ground level, and if you do need to go a bit higher, you can reach fruit with a small step ladder. The system is not only safer for orchard workers, but picking is considerably faster. “UFOs also have a much more natural rain protection just simply because the leaves can kind of sit over the fruit when it rains, so they act as like little raincoats.”


Similarly, once the trellis is established they're very simple to prune, easy to prune – and very quick, compared to a centre leader or a vase-shape tree.


UFO’s were first developed around 15 years ago in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and there are quite a few New Zealand orchards now growing their cherries in this way, particularly in central Otago.


Simon expects the system to become more common as it becomes harder to get staff to pick and prune. It’s been a super-challenging season this year to find labour, though average to poor fruit set meant Caythorpe didn’t have a lot of fruit to pick at the end of 2021.


“We pay pickers to pick on contract, but whenever the minimum wage rises, it's put some more pressure on lifting the contract rate. And, and I guess it just costs more, a lot more for us to be able to harvest the crop. We need to look at ways that are just more efficient and more efficient use of labour and UFO is a perfect way to utilise that. Essentially, we need 50% less pickers to pick a UFO orchard that what we do on a centre leader, because they can pick it so much faster. The fruit’s all there, ready to go without having to shift ladders around and climb up large cumbersome trees.”


The new orchard here has a four- varietal mix; Roseanne, Santina, Stella and Lapin.


Marlborough has a very short, condensed growing season for cherries and it’s a challenge converting from flower into fruit at blossom time is end of September, start of October. 


Like all fruit-growers, they rely on temperature and honeybees for pollination. “So, if you have a good flower and if you have some nice conditions you get a good fruit set that transitions through to harvest, and once the cherries begin to ripen we need to have nice dry, fine conditions to complete harvest successfully. But if it rains, then the cherries can split and then they become completely unmarketable – they can rot and basically we can't sell them.”


Having four varietals allows Caythorpe to spread out the maturation and harvest dates, Simon says.


“We don't want to have all our cherries ready at one time, because then it becomes a challenge to try and pick them all and then you're at risk either during flowering or rain. We’ll have rain covers, but you're super prone if you get a bad weather event at any one stage. So, by spreading out the varietal mix, you just spread the risk in the harvest duration.”


With the current varietal mix, Caythorpe should be able to complete the harvest within three to four weeks.


To minimise risk of crop failure, the family also grows grapes (a branded product) and sells hay for horse feed.


“Diversification is huge for us as a family to be honest, having different strings to our bow, you could say. For example, this year, the cherries have been pretty tough this year and we certainly won't realise any great income off them. But the good thing about our operation is that we are not beholden to sort of any one piece of the business. So, if, if for example, the cherries are poor this year, then we've still got the arable side, the hay and the vineyard and wine sales to sort of fall back on,” Simon says.


“It’s seldom that we'll find that all four items of our business will all line up and have a great year; it's just the nature of farming. You're always going to get one or two will be, you know, average or below average at best. So, it's great to have a great diversification and it just helps us spread that risk.”