Cheerful Cherry Farm in Hector just ended its most recent season, with only a few sour cherries remaining in the orchard by early August.
For owner Jim Augustine, it was another productive year for his trees, which can take five to 10 years to bear fruit.
“We closed a few days ago, so we had three weeks of cherries,” he said. “It’s been two good seasons in a row. Once in a while, you don’t get much, but we’ve gotten two good ones in a row. We had a surplus of 10,000 to 15,000 last year.”
Cherries are one of the most lucrative fruit crops for farmers, especially with a growing demand in the eastern United States. But for local cherry producers, growing the crop can come with some risk.
New York cherry producers can face weather-related obstacles such as extreme cold in the winter and excessive rain in the summer, which can ruin the fruit. Rain is usually thought to be a good thing for crops, but for cherries, excess summer rains can split a cherry’s skin either by the force of the raindrops themselves or by the root systems soaking up too much water.
Enter high tunnels: tall temporary greenhouses that extend up and over crops, providing protection with plastic sheeting or netting.
Farmers typically use high tunnels to extend their growing seasons or produce higher-quality crops. And according to new research from Cornell University, the structures may allow local cherry growers to double their long-term net return per acre.
An investment in high tunnels now would pay off for a farmer after 15 to 20 years, according to the study, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and published in Agricultural and Resources Economics Review. The tunnels could also be used for other high-value fruit crops with significant weather risk, like apricots, plums and grapes.
“Growing high-value fruits in a protected environment could be the future for New York growers,” said study co-author Bradley Rickard, professor in applied economics and management. “Normally we don’t think of growing fruit crops in a greenhouse. We’re saying it’s definitely possible to do it, and it might even make economic sense to do it.”
The study also found that two other strategies to protect from weather-related losses — crop insurance and weather insurance — performed better than no strategy at all, although with less of a return than the use of high tunnels.
Trees grown in high tunnels tend to produce larger fruit that matures faster than they would if they were grown in an open field, according to the Cornell study. That benefits consumers as well by making higher-quality cherries available earlier in the growing season.
That could mean more fresh cherry pies, juices, and more for those lining up to buy fruits at local farms like the Cheerful Cherry.
“We sold a couple hundred pounds for people to make wine,” Augustine said. “They make all kinds of things with them — even cold cherry soup with dumplings.”