Tickled cherry blossom pink

Improved packaging and promotions, along with the expectation of an excellent crop, promise to make cherry growers, retailers and consumers giddy with excitement.

By Richard Turcsik

Cherry growers cannot tell a lie—thanks to an expected early and strong crop, stepped up merchandising programs, promotion of health aspects, high-margin specialty varieties and the continued improvement of packaging, life in the produce department will literally be like a bowl of cherries this summer.

“Typically when we have an El Niño-type year in the Northwest we have a great harvest,” says James W. Michael, promotion director, Washington State Fruit Commission, Northwest Cherries, based in Yakima, Wash. He says that while late frost can still cause problems, last year the bloom times from different growing areas were compressed, resulting in a shorter season with over abundance of supply. “This year we are seeing a much more typical spread in bloom times. We will have larger size cherries that have been pruned well and they won’t be on top of each other, but spread out from the very end of May through the mid-August,” he says.

“Last year we had an industry-record crop of 20.4 million cartons and if Mother Nature doesn’t step in and throw us a surprise, it looks like there should be no problem with a 20-plus million crop again,” says Tom Papke, vice president, marketing and business development, Yakima Fresh, based in Yakima, Wash.

“We’re looking forward to a really good crop of cherries and through our partnership with Diamond Growers we’ll have some really good late season fruit as well,” says Dan Wohlford, national marketing representative, Oneonta/Starr Ranch Growers, based in Wenatchee, Wash.

Stemilt Growers, also based in Wenatchee, manages orchards in both Washington and California. “There are going to be a lot of good cherries this year,” says Roger Pepperl, marketing director. “What’s new for us is that we are going to have an even larger organic program and I would say that about 40% of the organics from California will be here at Stemilt.”

Rainier Fruit Co., based in Selah, Wash., anticipates starting to pick its fruit the last week of May, with promotable volumes coming on soon enough for retailers to begin advertising Washington cherries the week of June 14, says Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing. Retailers would be wise to promote cherries, she says.

“During the month of July, cherries are the No. 1 dollar per square item in the produce department, averaging $208 per square foot and 21.5 square feet of retail space,” Wolter notes. “This is the highest dollar per spare foot return that retailers see all summer long.”

Sales will probably climb even higher now that the crop is becoming more consistent.

“There may be a possible California/Washington overlap,” says Mac Riggan, vice president, marketing, Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan, Wash. “California has been investing in later variety cherries grown in later districts and I think California is going to go longer into June than they typically do. How that is going to affect our marketing has yet to be seen. We’re always hoping that California has a good cherry deal because it then creates momentum for us.”

“California comes in first and helps reopen that shelf space,” says Michael of the Washington State Fruit Commission. “We are still one of the few truly seasonal products. Historically we’ve seen upwards of a two-week overlap. We’re the same fruit, but from two different states. We really work to keep a cooperative, symbiotic relationship with Cali­fornia through things like medicinal research.”

The vast majority of the fresh cherries sold in supermarkets are the dark, sweet varieties. In recent years newer varieties such Brooks, Tulare, Sequoia, Sweethearts and Garnet have come on the scene, but the standard Bing cherry is by far the most popular.

Bing is king

“Bing is king,” says Pepperl. “But traditionally Bings will cover the center of the deal, with other varieties being early cherries and late cherries.”

“Bing is probably the most demanded cherry and the one that holds up best in transit, on display and all of that, but it is a timing thing and to extend the season there’s been a lot of plantings of Sweethearts and other later varieties,” says Bob Mast, vice president, marketing, Columbia Marketing International (CMI), a grower based in Wenatchee, Wash.

But in recent years other specialty cherries, most notably the yellow-white-fleshed Rainier have been gaining in popularity.

“Bing is still No. 1 in terms of volume and acreage, but there’s definitely been a rise in Rainier cherries,” says Michael. “We’ve seen about a 150,000 box increase annually in Rainier production. They typically go for a higher retail price, but they are also much more labor intensive, have a little bit lower yield and you need more people to process them.

“Different ethnic groups seem to show more prevalence toward Rainier cherries,” Michael adds. “Asian, African American and Hispanic consumers all show a marked increase in consumption of Rainier cherries over red.”

“Rainiers are growing all the time for us,” says Wohlford of Oneonta/Starr Ranch. “It has become a bigger and bigger part of what we do and particularly with the peak of the crop just after the July 4th it gives us some great opportunities.”

Pepperl says Rainiers account for 10% of Stemilt’s Washington crop. “The problem with Rainier is that they are expensive to grow and require a ‘delicate’ packing line,” he says. “We also need a lot of wind protection in the orchards, so you need to put up wind screens, whether that be netting or taller trees to block the wind. It’s a bigger, really good eating cherry with Brix levels much higher than our sweet cherry. Once people try them they just can’t believe how magical they are.”

Cherry twist

Several growers have developed new types of cherries. For the past six years, Yakima Fresh has been marketing 1-pound clamshells of what it has trademarked as the Strawberry Rainier Cherry. “We call it Strawberry Rainier because it isn’t like a regular Rainier with the red blush and yellow background, but rather it is more on the red side with little specks that make it look a little bit like a strawberry,” says Papke.

To promote Strawberry Rainier, Yakima Fresh has developed in-store signage in a wide variety of sizes that offers a brief description of what a Strawberry Rainier is all about.

Domex Superfresh Growers, a Yakima, Wash.-based grower, is continuing to roll out the Orondo Ruby, a new variety named after a Washington town that was introduced last year. “It is neither a Rainier cherry nor a dark sweet cherry—we had it genetically tested,” says marketing and communications manager Loren Queen. The flesh is yellow, similar to a Rainier with skin more the color of a dark sweet, he says. “Their Brix are quite high, but so are the acids, so you have a lot of flavor. It is really very rich,” he says. “We are rolling them out to some select retailers and building programs with them. We’re planting thousands of those trees every year—hundreds of acres—and we expect to go national 10 years from now.”

Until a few years ago, shopping for cherries was, quite frankly, the pits. Shoppers had to elbow their way through 25-pound crates to find the good ones, leaving hands sticky and floors a treacherous slip-and-fall-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen mess of discarded stems and “free sample” pits. Today, the vast majority of the crop comes in easily merchandised, display-ready, random-weight zippered bags.

Chelan Fresh is improving on that bag concept even further with its one-pound Flow Fresh Cherry Punnet package for its Rainier and Dark Sweets. The packaging features a clamshell bottom with a perforated film overwrapping the punnet, similar to how most cookies are packaged. “The film has micro perforated holes that help create a unique environment in the package itself,” Riggan says. “The holes are just big enough to let gases escape, but small enough to trap moisture molecules, keeping the moisture at a consistent, ideal level.”

Stemilt, which according to Pepperl created the idea of putting cherries in bags, has a similar package called Flow Wrap, featuring a plastic tray with a heat-sealed cellophane lid, similar to a frozen TV dinner. “The neat thing about this is that it is roboticized and can be packed quicker than clamshells,” says Pepperl.

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