First Bite - Strange Days
This is another unpredictable year in the stone fruit business.
By the time this magazine reaches you, the Pacific Northwest should finally be in the thick of another cherry harvest—and with a little luck, we can all say that summer finally arrived and with it some outstanding summer fruit.
The bizarre and unseasonably cool spring weather we have experienced appears to have pushed the summer fruit crops back a week to ten days. As cherry crops go, this one is going to be a challenge from start to finish.
The heaviest volume of our fruit will be harvested after the Fourth of July, which means that we will have missed our best window of the season for promoting the crop. Even with crop volume being down 30 to 40 percent, we will still need ample shelf space and promotions throughout July to see this crop move through the marketplace.
Apricots, peaches, nectarines, prunes, and plums are also down in volume but not as drastically as our cherries. The good news is that we will have warm weather in July to help build the needed size and sugars in our soft fruit and a peak that will be late enough to make for some great Labor Day promotions in early September. In short, this is another unpredictable year in the stone fruit business—albeit somewhat "stranger" than most of us have seen in recent years.
If you are a tree fruit grower, the anxiety associated with tree fruit production never really dissipates, and this spring has been a humbling reminder of how much influence Mother Nature has over our lives. At our core, we remain eternal optimists. We believe our fruit will be harvested, and we will provide consumers with the best-eating quality of any tree fruit in the world. That's why we play this game.
Future of flight
Air freight rules and regulations are changing within our industry. Since September 11, 2001, the challenges and constraints of air travel have been experienced by anyone who has recently been on a passenger plane. As providers of safe and healthy food to the rest of the world, it appears that a portion of our business will no longer be immune to the regulations of a post-9/11 marketplace. Through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration has been charged with implementing antiterrorist security regulations that include inspection of every piece of cargo that is loaded onto passenger airplanes. These regulations are especially relative to our cherry crop, as in a normal year, about 70 percent of our fruit that is exported to Asia and Europe is shipped via the cargo holds of passenger aircraft.
The implications of having to "de-palletize" our highly perishable fruit and have every box inspected prior to loading on a plane are significant in keeping our cold chain in place. Our industry will have to work with the TSA and adjust our shipping logistics accordingly. Starting on February 1, 2009, 50 percent of pieces of cargo must be inspected by TSA or a Certified Cargo Screening Facility prior to delivery to a freight forwarder or air carrier. As of August 1, 2010, 100 percent of pieces must be inspected.
Whether we like it or not, this program is coming, and our options are limited. While we still have much to learn, it appears we will have some choices in the matter:
1) Work with a produce-specific freight forwarder that has gone through the Certified Cargo Screening Program and has set up a secure screening area that maintains the cold chain and gets our product through the system in a timely manner.
2) Certify our own facilities to work within the guidelines of TSA regulations.
3) Avoid public passenger aircraft and ship via dedicated cargo airlines like FedEx, UPS, DHL, and other private cargo and charter planes.
Downstream implications include increased costs and potential lack of lift space that is set up for perishable products. The good news is, the team at the Northwest Horticultural Council will host representatives from the Seattle TSA office in early July for a tour of our sweet cherry industry. During this discovery process, we hope to further our understanding of how to proceed on this front in the future.
Strange days…strange days, indeed.