Heartbreak for family farmers as rain devastates cherry crop ahead of season peak

Heartbreak for family farmers as rain devastates cherry crop ahead of season peak

A beloved Christmas staple in Australia, cherries often take pride of place amongst the festive feasts.

But recent extreme rainfall in Tasmania has meant at one family-run operation in the state’s north, a bumper crop has gone bad.

When exposed to rain for prolonged periods, cherries burst open, stunting their growth and causing cosmetic damage. The splits also provide the perfect breeding ground for mould.

Cherries that are ripe when the skin burst are quickly picked and sold as second-grade fruit, while unripened and mouldy cherries are simply thrown out.

Cherries on a cherry tree are split down the side due to rain.

Once the cherries have split, they lose their sugar content and are prone to becoming mouldy.(
ABC News: Georgia Hogge
)

Gene and Laura Marshall of North Motton Cherries estimate that they have lost more than 60 per cent of their harvest due to last week’s rain alone.

‘Most of it is not even second-grade fruit now. It’s going to just sit on the trees and rot,’ Gene said.

A smiling family consisting of mum, dad, two sons and two dogs standing in front of their cherry orchard.

For Gene, Laura, Nash (left) and Jack (right), North Motton Cherries is their family’s passion project.(
ABC News: Georgia Hogge
)

Last Wednesday night, Gene and Laura’s cherry orchard was devastated by 61 millimetres of rainfall. This equates to an estimated $200,000 loss of potential profits.

“It does hit home pretty hard when you’ve put in the effort for the last 12 months … and then all of a sudden that happens,” Gene said.

The North Motton farmers say this could have possibly been avoided if they were granted government funding to purchase orchard covers, but they are ineligible because their harvest isn’t profitable enough.

‘For the little people like us, the grant system is very difficult,’ Gene said

The Tasmanian government’s Horticulture Netting Infrastructure Program provides a grant covering up to 50 per cent of the costs associated with purchasing and installing protective netting and associated infrastructure over permanent horticultural plantings.

But to be eligible, applicants need to earn half their income from their farm.

A cherry orchard on a sunny day.

The orchard’s 30,000 cherry trees are currently fully exposed to the weather.(
ABC News: Georgia Hogge
)

‘Nothing you can do about Mother Nature’

The pair have operated the orchard for the past three seasons but are yet to turn a profit.

After 80 per cent of their cherries were affected in their first season, they resolved that to protect their cherries and their livelihood, they would need to purchase orchard covers.

Unable to afford the $300,000 expense, Gene and Laura applied for the grant.

At that time, they each worked additional jobs and the profit they turned from their first fruitless harvest didn’t come close to matching their combined income.

This season, after multiple rejections of their orchard cover applications, there was nothing they could do but sit idle and cross their fingers.

“We sat there and listened to the rain — with a bit of swearing and cursing — but there is nothing you can do about Mother Nature,” Gene said.

Cherries on a cherry tree are split down the side due to rain.

The recent rain has cost North Motton Cherries roughly $200,000 in profit loss.(
ABC News: Georgia Hogge
)

At the mercy of the weather 

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania said all applications were assessed against the same criteria for “fairness and consistency”.

Gene was hopeful that if they made it through this season without any devastating rain, their farm might just be profitable enough to be eligible.

But this season, with no use for the unripe fruit and the second-rate fruit turning a lower profit, the farm will once again fail to generate 50 per cent of their total income.

Because of this, Gene and Laura say they remain locked in a cycle — ineligible for the grant, with no means of bearing the full cost of the covers.

“Because [we] still work full time, on top of doing our fruit … we’re just going to have to work a bit harder and hope for a better year next year,” Gene said.

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