27 September 1996

CHERRY FAN NEEDS PIGS FOR PROFIT

Pictures: Jonathan Page

Its pigs for profit and cherries for preference for Danish farmer Lars Schroll-Anderson as Tessa Gates found out when she visited Lars, his British wife, and a strawberry grower who realised a dream crop

"AS LONG as I can remember I have been working with cherries," says Lars Schroll-Anderson, who grows 18,000 cherry trees on his 57ha (140-acre) mixed farm near Faaborg, Denmark.

His other enterprises include pigs, "for a regular income", corn, asparagus, new potatoes and Christmas trees. "The cherries are up and down. You might get 50t or 300t but they can be good money – they please me best," he says.

"Lars likes the excitement I think," says his British wife Sandra, who takes an active part in the cherry harvest which starts in mid-August for the earliest of the three varieties they grow.

"My father started the cherries in 1962 and the farm was originally my grandfathers," explains Lars who has been running the farm for the past seven years. "It is difficult to build up a cherry orchard because for the first five years you dont make any money. For a good orchard it takes 20-25 years."

The light, sandy soil of the cherry orchards is alkaline and it gets a good layer of slurry from his intensive pig unit in February or March. The trees are sprayed against a fungus that affects the leaves, and an insect that hatches in the stones. Pruning and weeding are other regular jobs.

The trees last about 25 years, so a planned felling and planting programme is essential. Lars had intended planting a new orchard on land that currently grows corn, but the area has a conservation restriction, and Lars is getting strangled with red tape trying to get permission to change the crop.

Like farmers the world over he feels he is being told what to do by government workers who have no idea of farming.

And he is not too happy about the EU either. "Danish farmers are sick of set-aside and subsidy and Brussels seems too far away. We can easily have one bureaucrat each here. For every 100DKK they give the farmer, only 30DKK gets to us, the rest goes on administration."

Lars grows Kelleris, Stensbaer and Fanal cherries, which are sold to a factory at »rbaek where they are graded and frozen before being exported for processing into jam, yogurt, juice, wine or glace cherries.

The run up to harvest can be a nail-biting time. During the last eight days the fruit will increase in size by 20%. "But if it rains the cherries split and go mouldy and we just watch the money disappearing," says Lars. This year the trees blossomed well but cool spring weather seems to have affected pollination and the crop is lighter than expected, although very good quality.

The fruit is shaken from the trees and harvesting is an incredibly slick operation with trees picked in seconds. The harvesting gang is eight strong led by Lars and Sandra. This year the pickers, who get about two days work in August and 14 days in September, and work for 88DKK/hour (£10.23/hour), had come straight from picking strawberries.

The Danish-made cherry picker cost 400,000DKK (£46,403) but Lars aspires to a one-man machine that costs 1mDKK. With his current tractor-drawn machine, the driver positions the machine alongside the tree, releasing the "sails" – the partly divided nets that catch fruit as the machine comes to a stop. Two workers run backwards under the low branches hauling the sails with them as Lars swings out the picking arm, clamps the tree trunk and vibrates it. Down come the cherries, and all manner of debris and insects, and almost before they have stopped falling, the sails are rolling in again and shaking the fruit before them onto a conveyor belt. This steps the fruit up to a blower which blasts out the debris and the fruit drops into boxes which are smoothed and stacked onto pallets by two workers as the next tree is shaken. The pallets are fork-lifted off and taken to the roadside to await collection by the factory.

It looks a bloody business, with everyone turning red from cherry juice. The sail operators, have their hair snagged as they run backwards and faces whipped by branches as they run in with the rolling nets. "We must be masochists," says one, remarkably cheerfully.

The gang change jobs throughout the day. "The worst thing is when you shake down a wasps nest, and the best job is watching!" says Sandra, ignoring the spew of earwigs, twigs and leaves from the blower.

Harvest days are long for the couple – particularly for Lars who tends to the pigs before the picking gang arrives. In the evening he has to load the pallets of fruit for the factory and wash down and oil the harvester. Between picking the early cherries and the main crop he harvests his corn, which is sold straight from the field to a neighbour.

When all is safely gathered in on their own farm the couple spend two more days harvesting cherries for a neighbour.

But whether the work has gone smoothly or not, the real proof of the success of the harvest is printed on the factory cheque. Lars had hoped to gather 100t this year but the reality was only 70t. Prices too are down. Preharvest the fruit was expected to fetch 6-7DKK/kg (35-40p/lb) but the factory is paying 5DKK/kg (29p/lb). As Lars says – cherries go up and down.

Lars, (below left) operates the picking arm which shakes the fruit from the tree. The cherries are boxed and sent direct to

the factory for freezing.

Harvesting is a slick operation and the "sails" – the nets that catch

the fruit – are unrolled within seconds of the harvester stopping.