When Suzanne and Colin Pickering saw generational apple orchards in Harcourt close down one by one, they knew they had to change their business model.
Now every morning they are out between 6 and 7am picking cherries between November and January.
It may not seem like an easy option, but it’s a lot easier than the life of an apple farmer.
The Pickerings bought their farm in 1995 and planted pink ladies, galas and fujis.
It was never a commercial scale proposition.
At that time farmer’ markets were becoming common in the surrounding country towns, and the pair took advantage of it.
Initially they began to plant cherry trees as a “Christmas crop”, to keep their income stream steady when the flow of apples petered out.
Soon the Pickerings were selling more cherries than they could easily produce.
At the same time apple orchards around them were failing.
Families who had been growing the fruit for generations shut up shop.
“The writing was on the wall, the apples weren’t viable for us any longer,” Mr Pickering said.
“We’d seen the signs years before, there was a couple of generational orchards in the district had stopped trading. They went and parked their tractors in the shed and went and got jobs.”
Cherries also offered staggeringly high returns compared to apples. The Pickerings were lucky to make two dollars on a kilogram of apples.
A kilogram of cherries gives them as much as a $12 return.
And, cherries were a lighter, easier crop to grow. Apples suffered from birds by day, bats by night.
“Cherries and strawberries are just easier physically because apples are heavier,” Mr Pickering said.
“Apples are harder work, we were always in there with the spray pump, it just seemed to be pouring chemicals on it.”
The battle against the flying pests is far from over for them as cherry farmers through.
Mr and Mrs Pickering’s entire two acre orchard is swathed in a permanent layer of netting.
Fighting birds and bats is just the start. Earwigs and bugs also love the sweet taste of the small stone fruit.
Then cherry farmers have to contend with the fruit itself, a delicate product vulnerable to bruising, splitting and rot.
Mr and Mrs Pickering were making pretty good money at the farmers’ markets for a while, but then each small town started to want a share of the action.
More and more farmers’ markets began cropping up in around the region, which split the customer base.
The Pickerings needed a way to draw cherry-buyers to their farm.
So, Mrs Pickering through herself into marketing the orchard experience.
It paid off.
The Pickerings have managed to draw people in, so they can sell most of their produce direct from the orchard.
In fact, they became “notorious” for the quality of their cherries.
“The positive reaction from people just keeps you going,” Mr Pickering said.
“They just love it, people come here and just everybody's smiling.”
What’s the secret?
In reality, Mr and Mrs Pickering have been “winging it” all along.
It was a “when in Rome” attitude that led them to plant their first apple trees.
They learnt on the go with apples. Then did the same with cherries. Now they’re trying to build up a strawberry line.
Why do they do it? They love it.
“The bottom line is that we do it because we like it, we like what we do,” Mr Pickering said.
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