It feels so strange to be writing about our cherry harvest now that it’s all over – like I’ve arrived at the ball game just as the players are piling back on to the bus after the final touchdown. One minute (or actually for excruciating hours on end, day after day after day) we were protecting our crop from the evil curse of the starling flocks and then in the blink of an eye every cherry was gone, destined for cherry lovers everywhere.
Well not everywhere – but certainly to the good burghers of Launceston and greater Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, and our best cherries made the overseas journey to China and Taiwan. How excitement!
We picked the 10 rows of Simones in 5 days between January 13 and 18 with one rest day to give the packing shed time to catch up on our enormous first two days’ harvest when we picked nearly a tonne per day with 5 pickers. Five days later we backed up to harvest the 22 rows of Sweethearts over the following 6 days. They were not such great picking due to the damage inflicted by the starlings – basically too many cherries had been attacked, making messy work for the pickers as they worked around the sticky damaged cherries to get to the good ones. Overall I’m estimating that we picked between 6 and 7 tonnes, but we won’t know until all of the reconciliation is done with the packing shed.
The daily routine of the harvest was steady – the pickers started at 6.30 (or 5.30 on days where high temps were forecast), so I had to be at the orchard around half an hour after they started to collect their first lugs (tubs of cherries) and take them for weighing in at the packing shed so they could be chilled in the ice bath and go straight into the cold room. We had a great bunch of international pickers – three French Canadians, two French people and one Aussie girl. They were a team of dynamos, barely pausing for a break from their early start until they finished around 3pm each day. Our gun picker picked 32 lugs in one day – each lug holds an average of 11kg of cherries – so he hauled in around 350kg on his own. What an awesome feat! There was a great camaraderie amongst the pickers, and I loved hearing their soft French singing as I passed by to collect their lugs.
My best moments during the harvest were those spent carrying a full load of cherries on the back of the quad bike for the 400 metre journey down the road to the packing shed. Sometimes people would drive past and wave or smile, or follow me down the dirt lane to the packing shed. One day a man brought his two young daughters over to watch ‘the farmer’ unloading the cherries. They asked me what I was doing and I explained a little about it. I wondered if they too might want to be farmers one day. If I can do it, anyone can! Half a dozen rounds of cherry drop offs and lugs replaced and readied for the next day and I could be home in the mid afternoon.
However, I was more likely to be doing the rounds of local sales of our ‘seconds’ – cherries that were good, but not good enough for exporting or sending to the Sydney and Melbourne markets. We didn’t know we had a supply of seconds until day 3 of the harvesting when the packer’s wife asked me what we were going to do with the growing stack of seconds. ‘Doesn’t the pig farmer come and collect those for us?’ I asked. ‘No’, she replied, ‘that’s just your jam cherries he takes away’ (meaning the rubbish ones). I counted the stacks of 5kg boxes. We had 53 of them, that’s 165kg of seconds with more coming off the packing line as I stood there wondering how on earth we would get rid of them all before they went off.
The long and short of it is that with a little driving around town with boxes of our seconds, showing our wares to the kind and enthusiastic small retailers of Launceston, we were able to build up immediately a loyal local clientelle. These stores have called us every few days to drop another box or two in, totalling around 12 to 15 boxes per week from us each week during the season from mid January until now. I’m eternally grateful that they were willing to look at our cherries, give them a try, stock them and support them with ‘local Windermere cherries’ emblazoned on their shop windows. The most wonderful news is that our cherries are truly the best quality cherries I’ve ever encountered, with a shelf life far beyond what I’ve expected. They are crisp and firm, juicy and sweet all at once and the Sweethearts have an additional tang to their flavour which makes it even more interesting to my palate.
Damien also managed to get some wholesale sales happening which took care of a dozen trays at a time. That was a great relief (considering that at one stage I was desperate enough to want to ship a bulk load of cherries to mum and dad in Queensland to sell to their golf and cricket friends…). So all’s well that ends well. I hope it ends well. We haven’t received our payments yet from the interstate and international buyers. That will be when we sit down and work out whether the sleepless nights and the endless days of work throughout December and January were actually worth all of the effort. Stay tuned.