Can processors take more cherries?
As sweet cherry crops increase in the Pacific Northwest, more outlets may be needed for the cherries that don't go to the fresh market.
This cherry "martini" recipe uses both maraschino cherries and marinated fresh sweet cherries. For this and other cherry recipes, visit the Northwest Cherry Growers's Web site at www.nwcherries.com.
As cherry production increases in Washington State, industry representatives are wondering if processors will be able to handle all the cull cherries that don't go to the fresh market.
Washington orchardists don't grow cherries specifically for processing, but if the crop is hit by bad weather during the growing season, the volume of cullage can be high.
Jim Reynolds, president of Gray & Company of Portland, Oregon, which is one of the country's largest producers of maraschino cherries, said that, so far, processors have been able to use all the excess cherries, turning them into ingredients for ice cream and yogurts, maraschino and glacé cherries, or juice.
Consumer demand for maraschino cherries is growing somewhat, Reynolds said. However, the number of growers in the Pacific Northwest producing the pale-skinned Royal Anne cherries specifically for brining and processing into maraschinos has declined over the past few years because returns to the growers didn't justify continuing to grow for the processed market. Gray buys Van cherries (grown by some growers as pollinizers for commercial varieties) and off-grade sweet dark cherries (culls or 13-row and smaller) from packers. Dark cherries are more difficult to turn into maraschino cherries because they have to be bleached twice to remove the color, and returns to growers are low.
"As growers exit the business of growing, raising, and harvesting cherries for the processed industry, the result is that the processed industry is then kind of like a salvage buyer," Reynolds said. "Mostly, we're saving the packing house from having to throw it away. All it does for the growers is it helps their recovery rate."
The supply of off-grade cherries in Washington is likely to grow as the total crop increases as a result of widespread plantings in recent years. Should the industry decide to stop shipping 12-row cherries to the fresh market, supplies will increase further unless growers use horticultural techniques to reduce the volume of small cherries that they produce, Reynolds noted.
"The real challenge is going to be, can the processed industry continue to market the crop that doesn't go fresh?" Reynolds said.
While fresh-cherry production in Washington has been on a steady upward trend over the past decade, the volume available for processing fluctuates from year to year, depending on the weather. For example, in 2006 Washington produced a record 45,000 tons of processed cherries, more than double the volume of the year before when growing conditions were good.
Such fluctuations are difficult for processors to deal with, said Reynolds. "We bought more fruit than we needed last year, and we have a carryover."
But light crops can also present difficulties for processors. Reynolds said his company generally buys about half its supplies from other regions, such as California, Michigan, Turkey, Italy, eastern Europe, and South America, that still produce cherries for processing and have more dependable supplies.
Oregon Cherry Growers in The Dalles, Oregon, processes their cherries into ingredients that are used primarily by manufacturers of premium ice creams and candies, as well as into maraschinos.
The market for ingredient cherries is growing, said Oregon Cherry Growers fieldman John Morton, but with a return to the grower of only around six cents a pound, it's not a market that producers would want to target specifically.
Gip Redman, who was recently appointed vice president of fresh and field services at Oregon Cherry Growers, said that as Northwest cherry crops increase, because of recent plantings, new outlets for cull cherries will need to be found.
Fresh or processed
B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, which promotes fresh sweet cherries, said there's been no clear upward trend so far in the volumes of cherries going into the processed market, whether for brine, canned, frozen, or juice.
"The million-dollar question is, can the processed segment grow at the rate the crop is growing, and I don't think we know that," he said.
He wonders if the volume of processed cherries has been limited by strong demand from the fresh market.
Ideally, the industry would like to sell every cherry on the fresh market, he noted, and the proportion of the crop going to processing this season could be down if growing conditions are good.
Of the 45,000 tons of processed cherries produced last season, 21,400 tons were briners (for maraschino and glacé cherries), 7,000 tons were frozen, 4,400 tons were canned, and 12,000 tons went into juice, according to Washington State Fruit Commission statistics.
Thurlby said there's been talk of developing the dried-cherry industry, and he hoped that processors might look for new niche markets such as that.
Although the juice market has tended to take the excess processing cherries, Andy Schilperoort at Milne Fruit Products in Prosser, Washington, said there's not a tremendous market for cherry juice concentrate, which is often blended with other juices. The market is very price sensitive, which keeps prices for juice cherries low.
"If we had another rainy year where there were a lot of splits on the trees, we couldn't even pay enough to the grower to pay his picking costs if he strip-picked just for juice," Schilperoort said. "It's just too expensive to pick them."
Even in short-crop years, processors aren't able to pay more for the raw product, he said. "The price sensitivity of that market for juice concentrate doesn't allow us to go out and say, 'This year, instead of paying 7 cents a pound, we can pay 17 cents a pound because there's not enough out there.'"
Although there have been years when Washington supplies were short, it is not feasible to source cherries from elsewhere, he said. "We can't afford to. It's just so price sensitive on the juice concentrate. There's just not a lot of room for us to do anything with cherries that don't come right from the immediate area."
Rich Baldoz, vice president for processed sales at Snokist Growers, Yakima, Washington, said the canned cherry market is in decline, perhaps even more than other types of canned fruits. Consumption of canned cherries in the United States has declined by 50 to 60 percent just in the last six years, he said.
In any case, it's not an outlet for cull or rain-damaged cherries he stressed. "The cherries we use for canning are almost the same grade as fresh."
Canning cherries can be picked either with or without stems. They are left to hang on the tree two weeks longer than cherries for the fresh market so they have higher sugar content. They don't require good storability because the cannery tries to process them immediately. The advantage for growers is that, as long as the crop is not damaged by rain, the cherries can grow in size by another 20 percent during those extra two weeks on the tree, so yields are higher than for fresh-market cherries, Baldoz explained.
Laura Prisc, corporate communication manager for Tree Top, Inc., a major fruit processor based in Selah, Washington, said the cooperative produces cherry juice, individually quick-frozen pitted cherries that are sold at retail, and frozen cherries that are used in yogurt and ice cream. She declined to provide further details, but said the company expects processor demand for cherries to remain relatively stable.