The art of fruit-growing is all a little obscure to me. However, I am an eternally curious person so leaped at the chance last week to visit the top fruit grower in the country. This visit was an unexpected bonus when I was on my pests and diseases workshop. We popped 5 minutes up the road from the garden we were based in and found ourselves amongst acres of spanish tunnels full of cherry trees.
In my ignorance I didn’t realise they grew cherries under these tunnels although it makes perfect sense as they are protected from the birds and also the tunnels bring the crop on quicker.
Our host spent some time telling us about how they use bees to pollinate the crops. They work with a local chap who brings the bees in. I was fascinated to learn that different bees work in different conditions – but then doesn’t that apply to most workers!! Honey Bees need warmth to work at their best whilst Bumble Bees will work in cooler conditions and therefore get the blossom pollinated more quickly. However, of course there is the issue of the bees being attracted to other crops so the fruit growers are keen to get their crops pollinated before the bees get drawn to the rape crops.
This year they are working on a project with Mason Bees. The bee supplier has catch boxes which are put in the tunnels. The catch boxes are full of tubes just like the bee nesting boxes you can buy. The Mason Bees will lay an egg in the end of the tube and then block up the tube with dirt. I believe they will keep doing this until the tube is full of eggs each in its own capsule, but I may have made that bit up. Once the bees have finished laying eggs and pollinating they either go off to find pollen elsewhere or they die. Therefore the bee supplier looses his supply. What they are hoping will happen this year is that the Mason Bees will lay eggs in the catch boxes while they are busy pollinating the cherries and then the bee supplier can collect the catch boxes and he will have a replacement supply of bees.
We heard about the strict controls that are in place when the crops are harvested. All the pickers have to use sterilised hand wash whenever they go in or out of the tunnels. There seem to be endless audits and checks that they have to go through and M&S seem to be the most stringent but then they do pay well. The grower has even sent off samples to be tested for E coli to show their crops are fine and as a gesture of goodwill especially in the current climate with a lot of concern over E coli. He said there was no real likelihood of there being a problem due to the way the plants are watered.
All the time we were talking the pickers were returning from picking raspberries. The farm generally employs Bulgarian and Polish pickers. When asked about employing locals we were told there was just no interest. Sadly the wages paid are a lot of money to the Eastern Europeans but the English do not see it worth their while especially with such a generous benefit system available* A sorry state of affairs I think but that is a huge debate and we wont go there.
The grower reckons the cherry crops are about 10 days early and they were actually starting picking that day. Their trees will crop for about 6 weeks due to the variety of aspects they have on site. The farm is located on the top of Herefordshire hills and the tunnels run down the side of the hill so the cherries at the top of the tunnel will ripen quicker than those further down the tunnel. They they have east facing tunnels, south facing tunnels and different types of covering to the tunnels (but I got lost at this point) all which affect the speed of ripening.
Having talked to us for an hour whilst we stood amongst the cherry trees our host gave us permission to help ourselves to cherries. They were superb, so sweet. As a final treat we went up to another tunnel where the variety produced even bigger cherries which you had to eat with two bites. The skins were soft and the cherries even sweeter. Strangely I lost all my appetite for my cheese sandwich! I now have a new appreciation of the work behind one of my favourite fruit crops.