9 December 2023

Rain no deterrent to cherry-seeking tourists in an exceptional season

| Edwina Mason
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A close-up of masses of cherries

Cherries are still in good supply in the Hilltops region whether you’d like to pick your own or avail yourself of the boxes and bags full of the seasonal fruit. Image: Vino Li.

Word is there’s still time left to avail yourself of the biggest, sweetest cherries the Hilltops Region has seen in years.

With cherry harvest in the Cherry Capital of Australia starting earlier than usual this year – due to an early warm spring – the last of the fruit is being picked and rushed into stalls and stores before the Christmas rush hits.

And while technology is helping many of the orchardists pack, store and transport the remaining fresh fruit to market in the final weeks before 25 December, market stalls scattered around the Hilltops town of Young will also still be brimming with cherries over the next few weeks.

‘Pick your own’ cherry experiences topped the list of things to do at last weekend’s annual renowned National Cherry Festival, where visitor numbers were up 30 per cent on previous years, and bookings are still being taken at some orchards.

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It’s already been a long season for the Mullany family’s Ballinaclash Wines and Fruit, with pick your own bookings and bags and boxes of cherries being offered as early as 28 October.

Cath Mullany said 2023 had been a great season, slow at first due to the unheralded early start, but one in which the trees had fruited extra sweet and tasty cherries with recent falls of rain no impediment to enthusiastic weekday and weekend crowds.

“The rain certainly hasn’t deterred anyone,” she said.

“And there’s still plenty of fruit here, enough to take us up to Christmas, and we’ll continue to offer the pick your own bookings at least for the next couple of weeks.”

Beyond the cherries, Ballinaclash also offers pick your own apricots and plums. Their roadside shop on the Olympic Highway south of Young is also known for everything cherry, including pies, wines, preserves and ice-creams.

A hand holding a cherry ice-cream in cone

Or there’s preserves, homemade cherry pies and, yep, cherry ice-cream. Image: Ballinaclash Wines and Fruit.

Established in 1997 by fourth-generation cherry growers Jeff and Bridget Sell, Stony Creek Orchards is positioned on a high southerly ridge running adjacent to the Olympic Highway south of Young.

Eschewing their usual practice of allowing the public to pick their own cherries in favour of packing and selling to the Australian market through wholesalers, local sales of their two- and five-kilo boxes of cherries through their well signposted shed officially kicked off on 7 November with strong results.

Hoping for an even stronger finish to the season, two huge rain events in recent weeks have impacted some crops – Bridget says their recorded falls of 80 mm followed by a further 16 mm were enough to cause some of their fruit to split.

“The tree takes up water from the ground and uses it, and any excess is distributed up to the fruit, which causes it to split,” she explained, “otherwise water will sit in the rim of the fruit, near the stalk causing the fruit to soften.

“It’s the larger varieties it impacts because there is nowhere for them to go.

“We were OK at 80 mm, but that extra 16 mm was just a bit too much, so the end of the season has been a bit disappointing for us.”

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Picking at Stony Creek finished on Thursday, and while the Rons variety is still a very popular choice, Bridget said the modern Black Star, the crunchy sweet Simone, Regina and Royal varieties were rating among their bestsellers, alongside the locally homemade cherry pies and jams.

“We’ll finish packing at the weekend,” Bridget said. “Normally we’d still be going until Christmas, but technology is on our side in terms of the packing of the fruit, which is packed properly in bags that provide humidity protection so the color, flavour and firmness of cherries is locked in.”

They’re hoping their fruit will also deliver a national sporting result, having successfully delivered boxes of their cherries to help raise funds for the ACT U23 Softball team heading to nationals this month.

Cherries might be the main fruit produced in the Hilltops region, but it’s also known for its stone fruit, including plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots. Figs, strawberries and olives are also prolific. You may also find the occasional bucket of loquats – a heritage fruit which tastes like a tropical, tangy apricot when ripe. They’re still around.

Further details on Hilltops orchards are available on the Visit Hilltops Region website.

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