Blair and Mel McLean are about to become 100% owners of Cherrybank Orchard, in Spring Creek near Blenheim. The couple took the leap into growing five years ago by forming a partnership with original owners, Bernie and Trish Rowe, with a view to taking full ownership in 2020.
Bernie and Trish planted apples on the property back in 1985 before slowly introducing cherries and now the 10-hectare orchard exclusively grows 14 different varieties cherries - the oldest trees being 30 years old.
In a part of the world-famous for being New Zealand’s largest wine-producing region, the good quality soil, warm sunny days and cool nights provide good conditions for growing great tasting cherries that are ready to hit the market in the early part of the summerfruit season.
“Bernie and Trish were keen to partner with people who shared their passion for cherries rather than see their years of work be swallowed up by vineyards,” said Mel. “We’re committed to carrying on with cherries and having shared goals has worked really well for both couples.”
For Blair, horticulture is in his veins. He was raised in the summerfruit heartland of Roxburgh, Central Otago, before studying horticulture at university, managing an apple orchard in Canterbury, and spending 23 years working as a sales rep for Fruitfed Supplies – a full-time job he still does today.
Born and bred in the city and hailing from a corporate background, Mel didn’t follow the traditional route into the industry. However, she’s brought a lot of transferable skills and gets to do all the paperwork, staffing, and compliance.
The couple are now looking to build on the solid foundations that have been put in place.
Their initial plans include reducing the number of varieties from 14 to around six to eight. This decision is based on maximising the pre-Christmas market opportunity, making the most resources that are available in a short window of time, as well as providing the opportunity to complete some replanting using innovative techniques.
“We have late varieties, but not large numbers, so we’re focusing on the pre-Christmas period when growing conditions are best in our region,” said Blair. “That way we can use all the resources and infrastructure we have available in November and December to efficiently process the fruit in large volumes.”
“This includes our workforce, especially the backpackers, who come to us because we’re a step along their way to Central Otago who pick later in the season. We train a few of the Central Otago pickers if you like,” Blair jokes.
Replanting varieties that are removed will also allow them to train the new cherry trees in an Upright Fruiting Offshoot method, commonly known as UFO. It’s a modern high-density training system that produces fruit on multiple vertical leaders rising from a cordon-like trunk, in a similar way to trellised grapes.
Exporting to the Asian market is also a focus for the business, but a run of wet Decembers has been challenging for the property with the partners making the decision not to send offshore for the past few seasons.
“We set up each year for export but it depends on the quality,” said Blair. “Because we hit the export market before our friends in Central Otago, we only want to send good quality export fruit. We don’t want to negatively impact on the reputation in that market for the growers who follow.”
“We’ve been lucky to partner with MG who have taken all of the cherries when we’re not sending offshore – it a relationship that works well.”
For Blair and Mel, the relationship with MG isn’t purely transactional, it’s a business partnership.
“What we like to do early on is connect with MG and plan the season ahead. MG Procurement Manager Andrew Cross comes to Marlborough regularly both pre-season and weekly during the season. From there we build a bit of a picture and then, once we get into picking fruit, it’s about communication – this is where MG is very, very good,” said Mel.
“Andrew and I probably talk up to six times a day during the season. We have a great relationship where he gives me his daily “wish list” and our team make it happen (hopefully).”
And what makes it all worthwhile? “The great feedback we get from customers,” reckons Mel. “We have a lot of people coming into the shop and we love hearing about the enjoyment they get from tasting our cherries – especially following a year of hard work!”
Image 1: Cherrybank Orchard owners Blair and Mel McLean
Image 2: MG Representatives Andrew Cross, Roger Georgieff, with Blair and Mel McLean of Cherrybank Orchards