How a B.C. lab designed the perfect cherry

Researcher Cheryl Hampson says B.C. cherries are grown globally.

A research centre in Summerland becomes ground zero for some of the most coveted fruit in China

When cherry growers harvest their crops this summer in the U.S. or Turkey or Italy or New Zealand, it will more than likely be born-in-B.C. cherries they’re picking. It is estimated that at least 70 per cent of the cherry trees being planted around the world were developed by federal scientists at the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre (PARC) in Summerland. Since the cherry-breeding program began there in the 1930s, thousands upon thousands of new varieties have been developed, including Sweetland, Staccatto, Centennial, Sovereign and Suite Note. “Anywhere that sweet cherries are grown commercially, they’re growing B.C. varieties,” says Cheryl Hampson, a PARC research scientist.

In 2013, Canada exported $40.9 million worth of fresh cherries and B.C. accounted for almost all of it—$40.4 million. For all that success, however, B.C. is not a global player when it comes to overall production or sheer exports, selling a fraction of what countries such as Turkey and Iran produce. But Canada has developed a worldwide reputation for quality, thanks in no small part to the research carried out in Summerland. PARC’s 320-hectare facility there has approximately 90 irrigated hec-tares where scientists research wine grapes and tree fruits and every aspect of their production. In addition to developing new cultivars, the team has carried out groundbreaking studies on pest control and disease prevention. They’re also expert at producing the sort of firm, red fruit that make consumers’ mouths water.

Local cherry growers say the work carried out in Summerland will give them an advantage in the lucrative Chinese market—which, according to federal officials, could lead to a 50-per-cent boost to B.C.’s annual export numbers. China, with its 1.4 billion consumers, is the largest export market for any producer, but until federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz signed an agreement last November giving Canada direct access to the country, the only Canadian cherries the Chinese could buy were on the black market. Following trial exports in 2013 and 2014, this will be the first year the market is fully open.

Already demand is outstripping supply in China, where a pound of cherries that fetches $2 to $4 in B.C. is worth $10 a pound. “We have a line-up of people wanting to buy our product,” says Sukhpaul Bal, president of the B.C. Cherry Association, whose grandfather founded Valley Orchards in Kelowna more than a century ago. “I’ve got a guy coming from Shanghai who wants to meet with me, and I’ve told him up front that I don’t have product for him because I’ve got existing buyers, and he still wants to meet.”

Bal travelled to China last fall and was astounded by how coveted Canadian cherries are—although flavour was not the most important trait. “Taste actually comes after the colour and firmness,” Bal says. “The colour of the stem has to be green, which signifies freshness.”