Federal researchers are growing cherry trees in Kentville, N.S., that are much shorter than normal and can even be picked while standing on the ground as part of a trial that hopes to determine what cherry trees grow best in Nova Scotia.

Suzanne Blatt, a researcher with Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, says eliminating the amount of time pickers spend on ladders can cut production costs significantly.

"Over time the spray costs keep going up, the labour costs keep going up, so we're looking at ways to become more efficient, but still get a solid crop and quality of crop off of them," she said. 

Experimenting with 3 types

Dubbed dwarf cherries, they're experimenting with three varieties grown with the same root — one produces straight, upright trees, another produces shorter trees with bushier leaves, and the third grows horizontally.

Due to pruning, the only branches that produce fruit on the horizontal variety are the ones that grow upright, so the cherries can be plucked by somebody without ladders or crouching.

Blatt says the yield on that variety is lower because it's a smaller tree with fewer branches, but it has perks.

Perpendicular cherry trees

Some of the cherry trees have been groomed to grow parallel to the ground, while their branches grow upright. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

"It's easier to harvest, it's easier to care for. You get a better penetration of pesticide sprays potentially," she said.

Staying close to the ground

Typically, cherry trees are around six metres high and harvesting the fruit is the most time consuming and costly part.

Andrew Bishop of Noggins Corner Farm in Greenwich, N.S., has been growing cherries for 15 years and estimates 75 per cent of his production costs are from getting the fruit off the trees.

"They're not very big and you've got to pick a lot of them to fill your basket and the higher you have to climb — whether it's looking after fungus or whether it's getting those trees picked, it's always good to get them fairly close to the ground," he said. 

A 'very finicky crop'

Bishop says he will be watching Blatt's work closely as he hopes to plant more cherry trees in the future.

This week, Blatt's team has been measuring the berries' size, the amount of juice they produce, as well as how sweet they are to grade their quality and share their results with local growers.

Part of the challenge of growing local cherries, in addition to picking them, is a climate that's prone to overcast and wet and wet days. Rain at the wrong time can ruin the crop.

Blatt says cherries are a "very finicky crop. It's prone to cracking. It's prone to disease."

"The hope is that by using a management system that is a little more economical, a little more effective, we may be able to balance out the yield so that we do end up with a more consistent crop so that growers can go into cherries so we have local cherries as opposed to importing them," she said.

Cherry blooms

Typically, cherry trees can grow about six metres tall and ladders are required to harvest the fruit. The varieties in Kentville, N.S., are much shorter. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)