Britain’s cherry industry, which nearly collapsed 20 years ago is finally back on track.
High production costs and the increasing availability of cheaper imports all but put paid to the livelihoods of many UK cherry growers.
But with the support of Tesco production is now once again thriving and is so strong that the supermarket has announced it no longer needs to import cherries during the British season to meet customer demand.
This year British growers are set to produce around 6,500 tonnes of cherries – double to what was picked in the UK last year and the highest amount for nearly 50 years.
And compared to the paltry 559 tonnes that were picked in the year 2005, it shows just how far the revival has come in such a short space of time.
“Not only is the British cherry industry back on track after a long hiatus but the quality of the fruit this year is first class with soft flesh, ripe with juice and an unrivalled sweetness and taste,” said Tesco cherry buyer Jordon Watson.
“Shoppers prefer British cherries as they are considered the best in the world because of the near perfect climate here.
“Demand for cherries rockets during the summer months but now once again we can supply British classics throughout the UK season without the need to import.”
One key move from Tesco has been to take an early ripening variety called Merchant, which has helped extend the British season by several weeks.
British cherries were once one of Britain’s most popular fruits but poor weather, high labour costs and old-fashioned picking methods saw volumes of home grown cherries greatly diminish in the second half of the 20th century.
The importation of cheaper cherries from Turkey, Spain and America also contributed to the decline in UK production.
Production hit rock bottom in the year 2000 when the entire British cherry industry produced just 400 tonnes. But since then things have slowly started looking up again.
More and more British growers are now seeing better yields by using dwarf root stock, grafted onto new tree varieties. These produce much smaller trees which can be grown in plastic tunnels, creating a micro climate with temperatures similar to the Mediterranean.
And these new smaller cherry trees can now be picked by workers on foot rather than ladders, enabling British cherries to compete with foreign rivals for the first time in many decades.
This week Tesco will be selling one kilo boxes of British cherries for £4 as a result of the abundance of the fruit.
Sarah Neaves, whose family farm supplies Tesco with cherries was one of the first British growers to plant the new smaller trees.
“Over the last 10 years we have planted approximately 40,000 of these smaller trees and coupled with polytunnels to protect the orchards this has revolutionised our farm, meaning we can confidently supply our customers,” said Neaves.
“I remember from my childhood we could lose most of our crop due to the birds!
“This year we are seeing a good crop of large, juicy cherries – with the recent warm weather the cherries have ripened quickly leaving us with a flush of fruit, the kilo boxes introduced by Tesco help us manage our crops and ensure customers can enjoy British cherries at their best”.