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Consumers in Australia prefer cherries without stems because they look fresh, a Washington State University study suggests.

Dr. Matt Whiting, horticulturist with Washington State University in Prosser, reported on the study at the annual Cherry Institute meeting in Yakima in January.

Cherries that are harvested mechanically are harvested without stems, ­Whiting said, and growers need to know that if they adopt mechanical harvesting for labor efficiency they will be able to sell the product.

The study was designed to find out if stemless cherries would be acceptable to consumers in Australia, which imports Northwest cherries. Northwest Cherry Growers and the Australian retail group Cherry Hill collaborated in the project.

The cherries were fumigated before export and repacked in Australia in one-pound clamshell packs.

Consumers were asked to rank the importance of attributes of cherries. Color was clearly the most important, Whiting reported, and stem appearance was the least important. Price was not a big issue. People commented that the stemless cherries looked fresh.

The consumers were asked whether the availability of stemfree cherries in the clamshell packages would encourage them to buy cherries when they normally would not. About 60 percent said it would encourage them. Whiting said this might be attributed to the compelling packaging or the convenience of it.

A majority of consumers preferred stemless cherries to conventional cherries. About 55 percent preferred stemfree, while 44 percent preferred cherries with stems.

"This supports what we found locally—people actually are slightly preferring the stemfree product," Whiting noted.

The consumers were asked how much they would be willing to pay for stemfree cherries. Whiting said there is a small market for stemless cherries in Europe, but it’s perceived as a low-end product because the cherries are small and poor quality. In the Australian study, 74 percent of the consumers said they would pay the same price as for conventional cherries, and 8 percent said they would pay more.

This surprised the Australian retailer, he added. "They were a little skeptical and didn’t think people would respond to this product, but they did." Asked about the storability of stemless cherries, Whiting said in his research he has seen no ­detrimental effect of the lack of stem or of mechanical harvesting on the storability of the fruit. As long as the abscission area is dry and sealed, the storability of a stemless cherry is as good or better than a ­regular cherry, he said.