In Belgium, the season's first Flemish cherries came from the Demedts - De Mey strawberry farm's greenhouse. These are the region's very first cherries grown under glass. "We had to wait and see how it would all go, but the quality is surprisingly good, as is the production," begins Benoit Demedts.
He and his wife, Marie-Anne De Mey, became growers in 2010 when they took over an existing farm. Originally, strawberries were the company's main focus, but over the years, they have also expanded in the other soft fruit segment (blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries). They have about two hectares, including 7,000m2 of heated greenhouse, 5,000m of unheated greenhouse, and 8,000m2 racks.
"A few years ago, a small part of the greenhouse was harder to move around in with the tractor. We began considering what would best fill that space and quickly thought of cherries. It's a wonderful seasonal product that fits in nicely with strawberries, cultivation-wise. And it shows; since we started picking the first cherries last week, it's exploded."
Taking the plunge
These growers had to figure out how cherries would do under glass. "Initially, it was even questionable whether it would be profitable. A PCFruit advisor couldn't even say. After some contact with Dutch growers, who have experience with this, we decided to take the plunge, daring to plant about 200 trees. We don't yet know what grows well under glass, so have about nine different varieties, even white cherries," Benoit says.
That benefited the family. "We were told we could count on about 500g/tree this year, but we're going well over that. I was a little stingy with heating at the start, but now, it's nice and warm outside and it's wonderful that we can start so early."
French cherry prices
That has not gone unnoticed either. "Our cherries have garnered plenty of attention. Also, I think, because their quality is simply excellent. You can be the first, but if the cherries taste bad, it's over quickly. People keep returning for our cherries and are willing to pay slightly more for them," explains Benoit.
"Another advantage is that though stores already carry Spanish cherries, they're of lower quality. So we don't have any genuine competition. Maybe French cherries, because they, too, are of good quality. And, regarding pricing, we keep up with those cherries' levels."
The farm does all its own marketing, from its store, where Benoit sees plenty of interest from traders to work with their cherries in the future. "We want to build on that," he says.
"For example, for eight, nine years we've had a wonderful partnership with Bouvry wholesalers where we already market many of our strawberries." So in the coming years, cherries may well end up in that wholesaler's range.
The season will last for two months at Demedts - De Mey. "The last cherries in our greenhouse are the Kordia. These are slowly starting to color now and we'll be able to begin harvesting in about three weeks, when they taste at their best. By then, these will have to compete with the first outdoor cherries," Benoit continues.
"Those will, however, be early varieties. Kordia or Regina are generally the best cherries, so we'll have really sweet cherries by then. I think those will beat the first outdoor cherries in terms of flavor. But, we'll have to wait and see what happens."
The farm's greenhouse sports another novelty besides cherries. "Similar to the story around the cherries, we recently had a row left over that we didn't know what to do with. We like playing with different fruits, so we're trying to grow three varieties of apricots there. Next year we expect to offer these as well," states Benoit.
"People appreciate that they can get this kind of fruit locally, which is nice for us, too. A short chain is crucial to us. Whether it's our store or through buyers; everything that's picked today should also be sold today. Then, it reaches end consumers as quickly as possible and is eaten as fresh as possible."
As for Demedts - De Mey's main product, strawberries, it is as busy as ever. "We normally start with these in early March and continue until mid-Christmas. Due to energy prices, we started a little later, but are in full swing now. Annually, we have about 300,000 kilos and try to be in continuous production so we can constantly supply customers, like Bouvry. We, thus, switch between heated and cold greenhouse cultivation along with covered outdoor racks. These are now also selling like hot cakes," Benoit concludes.