Gary and Ali Jackson grow cherries out near Cromwell. Big, giant, plum-sized cherries. Cherries that burst with dark red sweetness and send a hit of melatonin to your brain, making you want to keep eating them past sated into that happy and pleasure-filled, drowsily euphoric (that’s the melatonin), festive feeling. Their orchard, Off Our Tree, grows super sweet Sweetheart cherries and punchy white-fleshed Rainiers, alongside Sonnets, Sambas, Stellas, Skeenas and Staccatos, each in a various shade of red. And, just when you think you can’t chomp another cherry, there’s Lapins, Kordias, Celestes and New Yorks to be had. In fact, Off Our Tree has 13 varieties comprising their 2500 cherry trees which grow on 3 hectares – it’s quite simply cherry heaven.
So, it came as a surprise to discover that this orchard is barely 15 years old and that Gary and Ali both trained as teachers, not horticulturalists. Both their sets of parents (and, on Gary’s side, grandparents) were teachers and principals of schools around the Kaipara region north of Auckland. Ali still teaches in Cromwell but around 15 years ago the Jacksons decided to move to Ripponvale. What started off as a ‘lifestyle block’ turned into a full-time business growing some of the best cherries in the world. They bought some land before things got pricey and found the Waenga loam soil, washed down over centuries from the Mount Pisa fault block range, was exceptionally rich and fertile. Seeing as the soil was “too good for grapes” (in Gary’s opinion), they decided to plant cherry trees and followed the lead of some long-term friends who were doing the same.
Today, most of Gary’s huge (26 to 34mm) cherries go overseas as export grade product, travelling as far as Russia, Taiwan, Korea and Western Australia. Raeward Fresh is one of the few local stores to sell boxes or punnets of Stellas and Rainiers over their short harvesting season throughout the Christmas period. When Gary first started connecting with a few local markets to share his cherries with, he got in touch with Moore Wilson’s in Wellington. He then met Nathan (who also had a good relationship with the Wellington store) who quickly said he’d take as much as Off Our Tree could supply. Part of the reward for Gary and Ali selling local is the enthusiasm their cherries are met with, with the key complaint being that customers find they devour them too quickly!
Walking around the orchard, I got a down to earth look at why Off Our Tree grows such amazing fruit. As teachers, the Jacksons are great learners and have brought intellectual rigour and curiosity to their commitment to understand all they can about each cherry variety they grow and sell. Gary and Ali work their tails off insuring that each of their 2500 trees (which Gary dug each and every hole for) is perfectly pruned each year using the central leader method. They have to deal with frosts, rain, wind and birds in a constant dance of weather and wildlife management. Large nets that keep the birds off the trees and rain damage to a minimum have to be put up and taken down every year. Ali still teaches during school terms but is on deck at the orchard when the trees start to fruit, which happens during her ‘holidays’. When the picking starts, Gary knows each tree’s fruiting cycle and sends his pickers to fill orders via the comprehensive spreadsheet in his head.
The Jackson’s have also worked hard to promote new cherries like the white-fleshed Rainier (a Washington State variety), educating the general Kiwi public about this beautiful golden yellow and pink hued cherry, so different from the archetypal deep red fruit that customers initially thought it was a dud. They care to ensure that their land is farmed in a sustainable way, including the keeping of bees which pollinate the orchard while making a delicious honey from the nectar of the wild viper’s bugloss, which grows around the orchard. And they’re enthusiastic about ideas for new fruit to fill the other three hectares in their care – perhaps with the loganberries, karaka blackberries and greengages they’re experimenting with. Whatever it is these folks end up growing, I’m sure it’ll be some of New Zealand’s finest.
Nutritional Advice from Kim Malcolm
The Nutrition of a Cherry
Cherries are most commonly known for containing melatonin, the sleep hormone that is also naturally created in the body to regulate the circadian rhythms. As the body typically only creates melatonin in darkness not everyone is able to produce it, so eating cherries or taking natural cherry concentrated juice can boost your melatonin levels.
Cherries are high in the antioxidant that is associated with reducing inflammation in the body, so that makes them helpful for working against gout or arthritis. This also works to lower the risk of certain diseases like cancer and heart disease.
Additionally, cherries contain small levels of zinc, which is needed to support the immune system and moderate levels of potassium that support the heart.
The last bit of helpful information is that whether you are eating sweet or tart cherries they are 75% water and full of soluble fiber. So, all in all, this sweet treat is to be recognized as not just something that is extremely delicious to eat but also beneficial to your health!