VICTORIA’S first pick-your-own cherry business – Red Hill Cherry Farm – has its origins embedded deep in the red clay soils that characterise the Red Hill district in the hinterland of the Mornington Peninsula, about 80 kilometres south of Melbourne.
Farm owner, Trevor Holmes, says the pick-your-own venture stemmed from humble beginnings in 1969 when an oversupply of cherries saw his parents, Harold and Betty, make the difficult decision to leave the remainder of that season’s fruit to rot on trees after bearing two-way cartage costs for product returned from Melbourne markets.
Plus the labour costs of picking, sorting and grading unsold cherries.
But for a then-teenaged Trevor and his 21-year-old sister, Glenys, the cherry glut provided the catalyst for an ingenious ploy aimed at rescuing the family’s unsaleable cherries.
While their parents were holidaying near Geelong, the siblings painted “Pick Your Own Cherries from Red Hill" on a garish orange sign, which was nailed to a rickety ladder and placed beside the Nepean Highway to entice motorists to the Prossors Lane orchard.
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“We sold everything we had in one weekend,” Trevor says of the strategy that raised $400.
The handmade sign also led the Holmes family to pioneer the state’s oldest pick-your-own cherry enterprise – a move that meant shifting the focus of their business ethos from conventional to tourism-based cherry markets.
“We’re in the tourism business now, so we grow for the experience of the public, particularly in terms of flavour,” says Trevor, who co-owns the business with family members Sandra, Daryl, Suzanne and Karina Holmes, as well as Steven Somers.
“We grow many old varieties that are not available in Melbourne markets. And allowing our cherries to fully ripen on the trees helps to develop more intense flavour.
Demonstrating the integral role of tourism in their farm business model, Red Hill Cherry Farm attracted about 12,000 paying cherry pickers over eight weeks in the 2016 season.
Catering for this demand, however, has meant incremental, ongoing expansion in both the land area and varietal range of the orchard in the past 17 years.
Since 2000, for example, the Holmeses have more than doubled their cherry growing area from 1.5 to 4 hectares, and diversified their mix of cherry cultivars from 10 to 25 varieties.
Trevor says the benefits of increasing their varietal ‘pick’ of cherries are threefold: a wider selection of cherry varieties helps supply rising demand from tourists and lifts the flavour repertoire available to pickers and, most importantly, the broad range of cultivars has enabled the Holmes family to extend their pick-your-own season.
In the early days of operation, the fruiting window at Red Hill Cherry Farm was typically two to three weeks from early to mid-December.
Whereas the addition of early and late-fruiting varieties to the orchard has more than doubled the duration of the farm’s cherry season and, ultimately, its opportunity for sales.
The cherry season now runs for six to eight weeks from mid-November to mid-January.
Facilitating this season extension was the introduction of early-fruiting sweet varieties such as Early Sweet, Merchant and Vista, as well as late-fruiting sweet and sour varieties such as Sir Don, Sweetheart, Sweet Georgia and Morello.
Trevor says fine-tuning this varietal mix to include about 400 sour Morello cherry trees – their latest fruiting cultivar – has the added advantage of delivering new cherry markets.
“We took a gamble planting Morello cherry trees when the biggest sour cherry grower in Australia, also based in Red Hill, sold his orchard, which was subsequently replaced with strawberries,” he said.
“The gamble paid off because although there is a limited market for sour cherries, the fruit sells well to Eastern European pickers.
“We’ve also been supplying about 400 to 500 kilograms of sour cherries a year to executive chef Max Paganoni, who uses the product to make Aged Morello Cherry Balsamic for Max’s Restaurant at Red Hill Estate.
Trevor added that the balsamic won a gold medal at the Royal Melbourne Fine Food Awards in 2012.
DETAILING the gross margin gains that a pick-your-own business model has secured for the Holmes family, Trevor says their production costs are almost half those of growers who sell cherries in conventional markets.
“The Victorian Cherry Association estimates that it costs between $3.50 and $4 a kilogram to produce and sell cherries in traditional markets,” he said.
“Whereas using a pick-your-own approach, we don’t have to pay for pickers, sorting, grading or packaging, so our production and marketing costs are about $2 a kilogram.”
Compared to premium, extra-large sweet cherries that can sell for $40/kg in Melbourne markets, pick-your-own sweet cherries at Red Hill Cherry Farm sell for $12 to $15/kg, depending on quality at the time of picking, and sour cherries sell for $12/kg.
There is also the option of consuming a bucket-load of cherries on-farm for a $10 entrance fee.
Value-adding alcohol products
ADDING value to the pick-your-own business, the Holmeses have diversified the farm business to include alcoholic beverage products, such as cherry port, cherry dessert wine, cherry beer and cider.
This cider contains a blend of apples, sweet cherries and pears.
The push into alcohol markets was driven by rain damage to the sweet cherry harvest about 17 years ago, which prompted Trevor to explore new options for utilising reject cherries.
We strip surplus, reject cherries, such as small or damaged fruit, from trees to make our range of alcohol products from a portion of the crop that would otherwise go to waste.
Following several experimental vintages, Hickinbotham of Dromana has been making cherry port and dessert wine with sweet cherries sourced from Red Hill Cherry Farm for the past 12 years.
The Dromana vineyard that includes Hix Microbrewery also started producing cherry beer and cider about three years ago, using respectively sour and sweet cherries grown on the Holmes’s property.
The cider was awarded “best in class” and a silver medal at the 2017 Red Hill Show, while the port took out another silver medal in the fortified fruit wine category of the 2017 Australian Fruit Wine and Cider Show in Hobart, Tasmania.
“We strip surplus, reject cherries, such as small or damaged fruit, from trees to make our range of alcohol products from a portion of the crop that would otherwise go to waste,” Trevor said.
Cherry port, dessert wine, beer and cider are sold at the farmgate, in local shops on the Mornington Peninsula and through the Red Hill Cherry Farm website.
- This article first appeared in Cherry magazine and is reproduced here with permission. Cherry is the cherry industry’s quarterly magazine and is funded through the Hort Innovation, the grower-owned, not-for-profit research and development corporation for Australia’s horticulture industry.