Valle del Jerte cherries: how technology and manual processes come together for a quality product

06 May 2024

One could argue that automation and manual processes are two opposite concepts in terms of warehouse logistics. Except when it comes to a fresh and highly perishable product like cherries. Here the two things come together as old allies. Cherry picking starts in late April and usually lasts until mid or late July.

And from mid-May to late June are the ideal dates to see the cherry trees with their fruits in the mythical landscape of the Jerte Valley (Estremadura). Always looking at the sky and hoping that the rains and weather conditions are ideal to not ruin an entire harvest again, this year the cooperatives of Estremadura hope to harvest approximately 17 million kilograms of cherries. And to do so, there is nothing better than using the most infallible and ancient technology that exists: the human eye.

The cherry is a fruit that has a great fleshy part and a delicacy very different from that of any other fruit, says the General Manager of the Cooperative Group Valle del Jerte, Mónica Tierno. Although in some points of the production chain there is a certain fusion of traditional processes with more mechanized processes, its logistics is still eminently manual today, although this does not mean it is slower. Time is against this product.

The cherry, being an extremely sensitive and delicate fruit, requires very careful handling and must be handpicked, one by one,” explains Mónica Tierno. In the Jerte Valley, cherry cultivation is still a family activity, with small plantations coordinated by the group of cooperatives, which has a large logistics facility where all the cherries and picotas from the area end up.

There are no plans for harvesting machinery to change in the short term due to fruit damage by a non-human being. Farmers take advantage of the nighttime and early morning hours to harvest the fruits. This way, an optimal cool temperature for conservation is ensured.

Once harvested, the cherries are usually sieved in the same field where they were picked, separating those with small imperfections, which will still be sold. Once sent to the cooperative group, they are sorted by size. This is one of the few types of activities that have artificial aid to speed up the processes as much as possible and waste as little time as possible, so that the product does not lose quality or temperature.

The quality selection, packaging, or the aforementioned calibration by size are carried out with the help of an optical calibrator equipped with a roller system that “is able to discard fruits with quality problems or with different ripening stages”, describes Mónica Tierno.

The entire logistics process starts and ends in water circles to prevent the fruit from overheating more than necessary. Once they arrive at the processing plant, the cherries go through a hydrocooler system or cold water showers to avoid the dehydration process and prolong their shelf life.

“This cold chain must be maintained at all times until the destination, and that is why the logistics to the market is also done with refrigerated trucks,” says the Agrupación de Cooperativas Valle del Jerte. The fruit spends a maximum of 24 hours in the facility before being shipped.

This is the time the group has available to complete the selection processes and quality controls. Meanwhile, it is essential to maintain the refrigeration cells and refrigeration in the processing areas, as well as the temperature set according to the customer's needs in the container, truck, or refrigerated van that carries the cherries to their destination.

“This is important because one of the main destinations is exportation, where the fruit can take up to three days to arrive, and it is important that it remains intact for as long as possible,” explains Mónica Tierno.

Once the cherry is marketed, the packaging must ensure that the fruit is damaged as little as possible, so it is usually sold loose in cardboard boxes of different sizes, mainly between 1 and 5 kg, or in small plastic or cardboard containers that can be sealed in different ways: heat-sealed, with a lid, in a bag, etc. These containers usually contain a minimum weight of 250 grams and a maximum of one kilogram.

The darling cherry of transportation

The attention is so extreme that heavyweight players in logistics and transportation, such as the Italian-Swiss shipping company MSC, the airline company IAG Cargo, or the air transport division of the giant Maersk, have transportation services exclusively dedicated to cherries.

Transporting this fruit abroad requires not only specialized equipment but also very specific protocols. The main exporting region of cherries in the world is Latin America (especially Argentina and Chile), which sells mainly to Asia.

In terms of data on exports of this product from Spain, the main importing countries in 2023 were Germany (8,528 tons), Italy (6,975 tons), France (5,713 tons), Belgium (3,054 tons), and Portugal (2,813 tons), according to data from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.

The cherry is a fruit that breathes. For this reason, the reefer container is almost always ideal for its transport, both by truck (for closer distribution) and by air and sea (for international distribution). These containers consist of a thermally insulated structure with an integrated refrigeration unit that keeps the internal temperature constant by circulating cold air.

Inside, the T-shaped channels allow the flow of cold air to the pallets with the fruit. This air is responsible for regulating the temperature, and to not hinder this process, both on the top and at the ends inside the reefer containers, there are red marks indicating the maximum height the load can reach. On the other hand, this type of container usually has a drainage system to remove the water that can be created due to condensation.

In particular, MSC recommends booking refrigerated containers well in advance of the harvest season, “given the limited shelf life of cherries.” At the time of booking the container, it is already necessary to request its configuration (air temperature, ventilation, etc.).

Ideally, the loading area should also be cold to avoid condensation problems. The second step is booking specialized land transport to the airport or seaport. “In this case, optimizing times and costs is essential, especially during the high season,” explains MSC about its service. Every precaution is taken to ensure that the darling of the food industry arrives at the final customer's table in perfect condition.

Source: El Mercantil
Images and video: El Mercantil

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