Okanagan fruit grower uses seasonal advantage to satisfy China’s craving for B.C. cherries.
For millions of consumers worldwide, life without fresh cherries is … the pits.
But British Columbia agri-growers like David Geen, president of Canada’s largest independent cherry producer, are making it their mission to keep cherry-lovers around the globe satisfied.
Part of the appeal of sweet cherries is their seasonal availability. You can only get the fresh fruit for about eight short weeks a year.
Geen and his wife Laura rebranded their fourth-generation family business as Jealous Fruits in 2009 to play up that exclusivity feature. Their northern location in B.C.’s fertile Okanagan Valley lets Jealous Fruits extend their harvest into mid-September with later maturing cherry varieties, giving it a distinct advantage over competitors in California and Washington where cherries are typically past peak by the end of August.
The seasonal advantage is proving to be a key selling feature in foreign markets, like China, where the domestic growing season only lasts from May to June leaving the 1.4-billion population wanting more.
Love for the fruit
“The Chinese people are willing to pay a premium for this precious seasonal commodity,” says Geen, who has assigned a full-time company representative to be on the ground in China during cherry season. “They regard the cherry as a luxury product and they have a love for the fruit because they associate the colour red with health, happiness and luck.”
But until recently, the lucrative Chinese market was blocked for Canadian cherry growers like Geen due to regulatory barriers related to food safety and infestation control. Efforts by the Canadian and B.C. governments, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to secure an agreement with China will give exporters full access to the Chinese market starting in June 2015.
“The Holy Grail in this business is to harvest fruit from August to September and ocean-freight that fruit in October to emerging markets like China,” says Geen. “The US and China are low-hanging fruit for us. There is virtually no competition.”
Jealous Fruits started exporting in 1992 to traditional markets in the U.S., UK and Europe, and gradually branched into more diverse foreign markets including Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. A year ago, the company expanded into the retail market with a frozen product available year-round in B.C. Costco and Thrifty Foods grocery chains, and has plans for North American distribution.
To feed the world’s appetite for fresh cherries, Geen’s ambition is to more than double his existing crop yield from 2,000 to 5,000 tonnes over the next five years. The company is buying and leasing new land, experimenting with new genetic late-ripening varieties and planting at higher elevations to extend its season even further. More than 500 acres will be ready for the 2015/2016 harvest, and another new 70-acre block will be planted next spring.
“We’re literally planting to meet existing demand from our customers,” says Geen. “It’s a great problem to have. We want to always be one box short as opposed to one box too many.”
Producing cherries does pose unique challenges. The fruit is highly perishable – cherries only last for a 21-to 25-day window – and is susceptible to damage from rain, frost or improper shipping and handling. That means market prices can be volatile.
“It’s high-risk. Prices can plummet and you can go from gold to garbage in a hurry if the fruit if not high-quality,” says Geen, who mitigates his risks by covering his precious cargo with credit insurance solutions through Export Development Canada (EDC).
“When you’re a small company making forays into a new market, there’s an element of insecurity. EDC’s credit insurance is a great backstop to have in place, especially when looking at a new market and new customer.”
“This is a success story about a Canadian company who is taking risks in an emerging market which is helping to open up new opportunities for all Canadian cherry producers,” says EDC underwriter Jonathan Bourgeois, who managed EDC’s account with Jealous Fruits for the past five years.
“I think the industry as a whole is expanding and there’s a lot of optimism,” agrees Geen. “I’m now fairly established, but there are a lot of up-and-comers in the industry who will have an opportunity grow, and that’s where EDC can really shine.”