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Cherry ripe: a right rip-off

Friday 11 June 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who once had a cherry tree in his front lawn, asks why the price of this oh-so-English fruit is so expensive and put it down to that old enemy, the Common Agricultural Policy

MY WIFE and I were shopping last weekend in one of the up-market supermarkets that can still be found in some of the nicer towns in the North of England when I was stopped in my tracks by the price tag on a display of fruit.

I literally could not believe my eyes and asked an assistant if there had been some mistake. On offer were fresh cherries at (wait for it) £13 a kilo or, in old money, something over £5 a pound. And, of course, they came from Spain. Also, of course, the price was right.

Now I suppose it is a little early in the season for English cherries – give that a couple of weeks and come sunshine – but I know from a friend now touring the Continent that the cherries are on sale by the tonne in France and cost just a fraction of that amount.

There was a time when I had a cherry tree in the front lawn of a house some 600 feet up in the Pennines, on very acid soil, yet every year it gave us a small but regular crop, more yellow than cherry red I admit, but perfectly edible. So what happened to the English cherry?

To research this problem – and it is a problem, because my family love cherries only second to English strawberries – I turned to the Woodland Trust, only to find out that they too – along with thousands of other people – are concerned about the massive decline of one of the great delights of a traditional English summer.

In fact, the trust has gone into partnership with a group of determined foodies to set up a new campaign, Cherry Aid (a nice pun on cherryade, which used to be a popular drink in my youth) to restore the cherry tree to its rightful place in our countryside.

The campaign has been launched by www.foodloversbritain.com which has researched the tree’s decline and the facts they have revealed are quite staggering: in the past 50 years, we have lost 90% of our cherry orchards and now import 95% of the cherries we eat – despite their extortionate price.

So what happened to the English cherry?...

Part of the campaign, in which the Woodland Trust is taking a leading role, is called the Bloomsday Project, in which thousands of volunteers throughout the country are searching out and mapping the locations of ancient trees, too many of which are lost every year to building development.

The Cherry Aid people are, of course, concentrating on their particular tree and, until; recently, it was believed that the oldest cherry in the land was here in North Yorkshire on the Studley Royal estate.

This had a massive girth of 18.8 feet round its trunk but, sadly, it lost its champion’s status when freak storm snapped its crown in 2008. Now, another contender has been found in Cumbria – but there may still be others out there as yet undiscovered.

So what happened to the English cherry? Indeed, what happened to the English fruit industry as a whole? Sadly, the answer to that comes as no surprise, a combination of Whitehall incompetence when it comes to dealing with any form of agriculture and the machinations of that all-consuming bureaucratic monster, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

From the 1970’s onwards, when we first joined what was then the EEC, our negotiators were continually outwitted by their continental partners – “opponents” is perhaps a better word – led by the French with help from the Italians and, later on, from Spain.

The result was that whilst their fruit industries flourished, fruit growers in places like Kent, the so-called Garden of England, grubbed out hundreds of thousands of fruit trees: CAP had been distorted in such a way as to make fruit growing here a sure route to the bankruptcy court.

It is a classic story of monopoly capitalism: destroy the opposition and then you can charge whatever you like for your own goods. The result: cherries at £13 a kilo. But now, we Brits are fighting back. There is even to be a National Cherry Day on Saturday, July 17. I can’t think of a more delicious way to protest – if you can afford it, that is!

Feedback received on this subject:

I am very sad that we have to pay through the nose for my favourite fruit. I will support any initiative that will help to promote British cherry growing.

Doreen McTaggart Cumbernauld

I am not convinced at all that it is either logical or fair to place blame on the CAP for the decline of the cherry in this country. For example, their is no dearth of apples and this is by nature a larger fruit and often larger tree.

Furthermore,the return on apples has never been that large and yet they continue to be cultivated in the UK. I beleive that you have to look for your enemy elsewhere.

I do, however, love cherries and planted a tree last year, which this year bore its first fruit. Thr problem is that birds seem to get to it before we do. Next year, when it has grown larger, I will net it.

Faraz Kermani Meldreth, Cambs

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