ACT News

Record Australian cherry harvest could swamp market

Harvesting has begun of Australia's biggest cherry crop which could surpass 18,000 tonnes.

A major producer at Young, Michael Batinich, says the crop is so big nationwide a joke is spreading across the orchards as the early season varieties turn a rich crimson red:

Cherry glut: Forth generation orchardist Michael with his father Noel Batinichs at Cherry More Orchard near Young.
Cherry glut: Forth generation orchardist Michael with his father Noel Batinichs at Cherry More Orchard near Young. Photo: Jay Cronan

"Cherries. You want cherries? The bloody gum trees have got cherries on them."

If there's a hint of sarcasm in his voice, it's for good reason. 

"We could have market failure again," Mr Batinich said. "Three years ago we had market failure, there were lots of cherries and the Australian dollar was at parity (with the United States). For any exporter, it didn't add up.

"But since then the dollar has been falling," Mr Batinich said.  "If it can happen, if it keeps falling it will be a breath of fresh air. If it goes up it will kill us."

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Growers have been trying for decades to sell into China, but fears of Queensland fruit fly have kept them out and caused other south east Asian markets to suddenly close the door on Australian cherries.

"It is quite ironic because it is not a pest of concern for us in the cherry season," Mr Batinich said.

"Queensland fruit fly don't keep me awake at night. It's the garden variety European earwigs, you know, the ones you find under your pot plants, they keep me up thinking. He eats the stalks and nose of cherries. He's a real pain.

"We have been proactive, we are setting up blocks of cherries, trapping and monitoring insects and logging what we trap, trying to build up a history to show these countries there is no issue with fruit fly in the cherry season."

Chinese interests buying property in the district have raised hopes of building a bridge into their markets at home which hold enormous potential.

Chile exports 100,000 tonnes into China.

"We have just 18,000 tonnes and are saying, 'what are we going to do with it all?' That's how ridiculous it is," Mr Batinich said.

Until the export hurdle nothing stopped the Batinichs from flourishing in a fickle industry, from 1892 when 14-year-old Barisa Batinich sailed in the bow of a ship from the Yugoslavian port city of Split, carrying a bag and prayer book.

His descendants don't know whether he was Austrian or Yugoslavian. He worked in his sponsor Boldo Cunich's orchard on the north side of Young until he bought his own small plot. His son Ernie was the first grower on the town's southside.

Ernie Batinich's son Noel (Michael's father) remembers the halcyon 1950s through to the 1980s when multiple retailers competed for their cherries, until the two big supermarket chains wiped them out too.

"The big stores are giving us heaps (of grief)," Mr Batinich senior said.

He remembers contracting a helicopter from Cootamundra to hover over and dry out the orchards in a rain-swept season in the 1990s.

 Did it work? "No, it rained again that afternoon," Mr Batinich said. "Now we breed resistance to splitting, but there's no resisting hail."

Having been told by his grandfather Ernie mechanical grading of cherries would never happen, Michael set off with another grower, Trevor Hall, for America, where they studied a rough form of grading and returned to work with engineers to design a smoother machine. Since then it has been embraced industry wide.

It was a leap forward and one that could be repeated, according to Mr Batinich, if more science was applied to biological controls of pests, as it has in Chile.

The Batinichs expect to produce 1000 tonnes this season. Four hundred pickers, mostly backpackers will take off the crop over the next four to six weeks and the growers would like to export as much as possible.

"This is new territory for us. The Australian dollar is  lower and there seems to be inquires for cherries. More people are popping up their head in south east Asia," an ever hopeful Michael Batinich said.