High tunnel production of fruit crops requires a high potential market value to justify the added expense of the tunnel structure to orchard management costs. Fruit production in high tunnels has focused largely on nonwoody perennial or biennial berry crops such as strawberry (Fragaria ×ananassa) and raspberry (Rubus idaeus) (Lamont et al., 2003). These crops are similar to the high-value vegetable and cut flower crops that have been successful in high tunnels (Lamont and Orzolek, 2003). Apple (Malus ×domestica) trees on dwarfing rootstocks are suitably small statured for containment within a high tunnel structure, but most cultivars may command insufficient market returns to make high tunnel production economically feasible. In North America, as elsewhere in the world, the market returns for fresh sweet cherry fruit have been remarkably strong and relatively consistent since the mid-1990s (O'Rourke, 2006). This strong market performance is, to some extent, due to the high desirability of the fruit to consumers, its limited seasonal appearance in the marketplace, and the fact that sweet cherry is among the riskiest fruit crops to grow. Competing for, and retaining, shelf space in retail produce markets requires a consistent supply and consistently high quality. Sweet cherry trees are highly susceptible to numerous potential production limitations such as fruit damage or even tree death from low temperatures, insect and disease pests, and in particular, rain-induced fruit cracking during the final stages of fruit ripening (Webster and Looney, 1996).
Therefore, sweet cherry is an obvious market-driven candidate fruit for potential adaptation to high tunnel production strategies in areas where these production risks are significant. Yet, the woody perennial structure of the sweet cherry and its inherent reproductive and vegetative physiology present perhaps a “final frontier” for crop adaptation to tunnels. Challenging evolutionary traits include potential tree size (in nature, sweet cherry is a tall forest tree) and the fact that a high percentage of fruit-bearing sites in the tree require about 16 to 26 months from initiation of shoot growth to the harvest of the first fruit borne on spurs on that shoot. Consequently, rootstocks that are dwarfing and precocious, coupled with high-density orchard training systems (Lang, 2000), are likely to be critical to achieve the reduction in tree stature suitable for containment within tunnel structures and early, high fruit production for repayment of substantial establishment costs.
The majority of fresh market sweet cherry production in North America is located in the low-rainfall regions of the western United States and British Columbia. Sweet cherry production also is significant, although at a much reduced scale, in the Great Lakes region (especially Michigan, Ontario, and New York). The urban and suburban population centers of the midwestern and Atlantic states and provinces provide major markets not only for standard (high volume, moderately priced) sweet cherry retail sales (as currently supplied by western producers), but also higher margin farm market and pick-your-own sales as well as upscale retail markets whose customers will pay a premium for locally grown and/or organic, high-quality produce. These latter markets must be targeted to make the economics of high-tunnel sweet cherry production viable.
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