Shoppers loading up on cherries ahead of the festive season face a sour experience at the checkout as heavy rain risks driving up prices of the Christmas favourite.
Soggy conditions caused by a third consecutive La Nina are expected to damage cherry crops, a new report from agriculture financier Rabobank warns.
Co-author Pia Piggott said late-season rain would likely cause lower-than-average supplies of the festive fruit, increasing prices for growers but also potentially leading to customers paying more.
It comes despite strong growth in the sector, which has seen farmers invest in production capacity to meet rising demand in Australia and overseas.
Over 450,000 additional cherry trees have reached maturity since 2018, Rabobank says.
However, as a result of record rainfalls, fruit production declined 15 per cent last year to 17,000 tonnes.
Exports from New South Wales and Victoria, which along with Tasmania account for 81 per cent of total cherry production, declined 51 and 32 per cent respectively.
Ms Piggott said Australian cherries were among the highest-quality and most expensive in the market, which would lead to profit margins being squeezed if producers were unable to export rain-damaged fruit.
Cherry farmer Guy Gaeta, from the Central Tablelands region of NSW, told AAP his trees were “exploding” with cherries at the moment, but there was no guarantee they would survive until the harvest.
“There’s nothing certain in farming,” he said.
“All it needs is a downpour of rain the day before you start picking and you can lose your crop.
“So nobody knows what’s going to happen six weeks from now.”
Cherries are ideally suited to Australian conditions, especially in the main growing regions like Young in NSW and Victoria’s Goulburn Valley.
However, their delicate skin means months of hard work for farmers can be ruined by a short burst of moisture on the fruit’s surface.
“The wetness softens the skin and it just tears,” Mr Gaeta said.
In a good year, farmers expect less than 15 per cent of their cherry crop to be damaged, but a rain-affected season can make it uneconomical to pick a crop at all.
“The usual rule of thumb is if 50 per cent of cherries are bad, you walk away – because you won’t even make the money to pay the pickers,” Mr Gaete said.
“Last year about 60 per cent of cherries were damaged. We lost virtually the whole lot with the rain.”
Woolworths chief Brad Banducci told media on Thursday he expected fresh fruit supplies to be affected by the wet weather, citing a delay to the cherry season.
But Mr Gaeta remains optimistic, saying the heavy rains of recent weeks are yet to have an effect on maturing crops.
“It’s looked as good as any (this season) … if the weather settles down and rains every couple of weeks or at the end of every week I can’t see what will go wrong,” he said.