Proposed Tarras airport would be 'very beneficial' for Central Otago cherry growers

Cherry growers in Central Otago are welcoming plans to build an international airport in the small town of Tarras.

Last month it was announced that Christchurch Airport had purchased a 750-hectare block of farmland with the idea of building a new airport in the area.

The news took locals by surprise and has been highly controversial, with residents in the area hard against the plan.

But Ross Kirk of horticultural company Hortivest says the prospect is "quite exciting" and cherry growers in the region would benefit immensely from the airport.

"I'm very aware that there's a lot of people out around Tarras that are far less excited about having an airport there but from a purely commercial point of view it suits our operation very nicely," Kirk told Magic Talk's Rural today on Tuesday.

"I was as stunned as everybody else when they suddenly announced that they had bought a great big hunk of dirt to put an airport in - it just came completely out of left field. But very quickly I decided that that would be a very good thing for us with regards to our products."

The vast majority of cherries exported from New Zealand are grown in Central Otago.

Kirk says last year around 2200 tonnes were produced, down from around 4500 tonnes three years ago.

But with the industry expected to grow in coming years, Kirk says an airport nearby would make getting the product to export markets far easier.

"At the moment we truck the majority of our products to either Christchurch or up to Auckland to be air-freighted to the various international markets. To have an airport right here and be able to put our products directly on that would be very beneficial," he said.

"We expect the crop to rise quite significantly over the next few years and so that's a lot of trucks travelling a long way to cart our product."

Kirk described cherries as a "very valuable crop".

"On a per-kilo basis export cherries sit somewhere around $21 a kilo FOB [free on board] - if you extrapolate that out it's a lot of money."

As well as reducing transport, Kirk said a local airport would make things much easier, given cherries' short shelflife. 

"Cherries are very perishable so the quicker we can get it to market the more we transfer the shelflife to the market instead of using it up here shipping it around the country."

Although the proposed airport would suit cherry growers, Kirk said he recognised the frustration many locals had expressed about it.

One of those opposed to the plan is Scott Worthington, spokesperson for the Tarras Community.

On Monday, Worthington told Rural Today the news that Christchurch Airport had bought the farmland was a "sheer surprise". He said every time residents sought answers about how the purchase was made without local consultation instead of finding answers they merely found more questions.

Worthington said he thinks Tarras was chosen not only for its flat land but because there are only around 200 residents in the town it was believed there would be "less chance of people objecting".