Monday, February 26, 2024

Frozen cherries trialled in Otago

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Aim is to find new ways to preserve or use fresh produce to reduce food waste.
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A Central Otago orchard is looking to turn a summer delicacy into a year-round treat.

Eden Orchards, in Alexandra, has secured up to $40,000 in funding from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund for a trial to produce individually quick frozen cherries.

The pilot stems from earlier work led by the Central Otago District Council (CODC) in collaboration with industry, growers, and food manufacturers to make use of more locally grown fruit that would otherwise go to waste.

In 2022 the CODC commissioned a report – Understanding Fruit Loss in Central Otago – that determined about 6155 tonnes of fruit in the region go to waste each year.

Cameron Bignell, general manager of Eden Juice Limited, said as a result of that report a group of Central Otago growers, processors and interested parties got together to see what impact they could have on reducing those figures.

Every year on average 2207t of Central Otago cherries is discarded or not harvested due to imperfections and this quantity is expected to increase as new plantings reach peak production.

Eden Orchards has been being playing its part in using wasted fruit since 2017, turning processing-grade cherries into juice for the local and export market.

The company currently takes processing-grade cherries from 14 of Central Otago’s biggest orchards. This year it will process 800t of cherries into juice, compared to 350t last year.

Bignell said the challenge has been trying to expand the company quickly enough to keep up with the supply of fruit.

So stepping into the frozen cherry trial seemed a natural fit.

“We had talked to other companies that sold frozen New Zealand fruit and there was a demand for frozen cherries but no one was actually doing it.”

Cameron Bignell with some of the individually quick frozen cherries produced as part of a trail aimed at reducing food waste.

Frozen cherries retain many health benefits of fresh cherries and are growing in popularity for use in smoothies and baking. It is a common processing use for surplus fresh cherries elsewhere in the world.

Bignell said as the company is already processing fruit on a large scale, it agreed to a 12-month trial on behalf of the group. 

“Most orchards are focusing on their export grade fruit so it’s about how does this process work for them, and for us to source good enough quality cherries in order to get a really high quality frozen product at the end.”

Bignell said the trial is proving labour intensive. Juicing and frozen grade cherries have to be manually sorted and stems removed by hand.

Techniques were also being trailed to de-stone the fruit, while leaving the cherry intact, and successfully freezing the cherry without it browning or losing quality.

“If the trial is successful we may invest in a whole lot of machinery to do that work, but we didn’t want to do it until the trial is conducted.

“We are getting some really good cherries at the end, but we just need to work out how we get the right equipment to make it cost effective, because it’s not at the moment.”

CODC economic development manager Nick Lanham is pleased to see the first pilot up and running.

“Supporting the growth of more commercial processing of waste fruit is great from a sustainability angle as it reduces the amount of fruit wasted, creates additional revenue streams for growers, and generates more economic activity in the district.”

Local grower and project group member Alex Huffadine said it is great to see more innovation happening in fruit waste recovery in the region. 

“This ticks so many boxes, minimising waste, adding value and employing locals.”

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