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NZ: Cheers to cherries at Christmas

Cherries are to Christmas what chocolate is to Easter. As is Kiwi tradition, thousands of New Zealanders will have cherries grace their table over the festive season, most of which are grown by local, dedicated growers in the South, Aimee Wilson reports.  

For those wanting a real taste experience of this splendid fruit, there are several orchards in Central Otago that specialize in 'Pick Your Own' cherries – something that Trip Advisor rates as #2 of 45 'Things to Do' around Cromwell. 

Cheeki Cherries, which merged with Dam Good Fruit three years ago, offers 22 cherry varieties, with 3000 trees opened to the public on Ripponvale Road for PYO. The orchard caters largely to tourists, with a huge percentage from the Asian market. The business also offers a range of outside games and activities for people to enjoy while having a picnic under the trees. 

Owner Martin Milne once owned three cherry orchards in the district – managing 6000 trees that produced 100 tonnes of fruit. With the PYO side of the business being so successful, he now only exports 10 tons. Martin says some days, there are 100 cars lined up in the car park, and he's strategically positioned his marketing right into Queenstown Airport, so the tourists know where to go for that cherry-picking experience. 

Smithy's Pick Your Own (PYO) cherry orchard owners Alan and Coral Smith 

Despite the demand, 2023 will mark the first year that Cheeki Cherries has had to increase its prices due to rising costs. For years you could PYO for around $15/kg, but at $17/kg – it's still reasonable for export-quality cherries. A little further down Ripponvale road, Smithy's PYO is a new player in the PYO cherry market. 

Owners Alan and Coral Smith established the business in 2021, opening on Christmas day after fielding so many phone calls from holidaymakers, as well as people knocking at their door, who were seeking a bite of the famed Central Otago cherry.  

Last season a busload of tourists came all the way from Christchurch just for the day – the oldest being a 92-year-old lady. "People have had their Christmas lunch, and then they are bored and want something to do," Coral says. Although popular, Alan says a PYO business can be riskier in many respects, as the fruit is exposed to the weather for longer.  

"It's the old story if it rains," he said, referring to the torrential downpours that can unpredictably wipe out a crop in one day. The Smithy orchard has plenty of space for picnics and lounging around after your hard work, and you can buy an ice cream or a drink and talk to the friendly sheep and alpaca. "We do try to create a relaxing atmosphere for the parents and kids," Coral says. 

The espalier trees make picking even easier, with 1000 trees of large, export-grade cherries available for the public to peruse. At least 60 percent of their cherries can be picked from the ground, with ladders available for fruit that's higher up. As well as good eating, Coral says some people pick their own cherries to make into specialty chutneys, jams, and ice cream.   

Another two new PYO cherry businesses will start up on Ripponvale Road in time for the 2022/23 season, as word has spread about how strong the market has become. PYO season generally starts on Christmas day and runs through until 25 January. Further south in Roxburgh, export grower Chris Toms from The Big Cherry will be opening his orchard in early January to PYO. He has a huge following from the Indian and Asia communities around Otago and Southland, who come through every year for the hands-on experience. 

"Some of them stay for hours and just sit under the trees and take pictures," Chris says. One woman has been coming from Dunedin every season for the past 38 years, firstly with her children and now her grandchildren. "They love the white cherries, and they're not quite so fussy about the blemishes," Chris says.  

While The Big Cherry doesn't advertise PYO, when the sign goes out on the main highway in early January, Chris welcomes anyone. 

There are a few health and safety requirements to adhere to – no climbing trees or pulling branches, and Chris shows people the right way to pick them – but other than that, it's a pretty relaxed operation. 

Back in the 1980s, the Dawson cherry variety was once the main player in the New Zealand market, and the family who first introduced the variety have kept a few trees on their Conroys orchard just for the Christmas tradition. 

Every December, the Taylor family shares their small private collection near Alexandra with a few friends and family, who, for them, the Dawson means so much at Christmas. 

The PYO experience is starting to become a niche market in Central Otago, particularly for those growers living near the tourist towns of Queenstown and Wanaka. 

But if you know the right person with a private orchard, or where the pockets of trees are that grow wild, it's like striking gold – and there's still plenty of that around the district too.   

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