The Bing cherry, long the king of the Northwest industry, is losing ground to the newer Canadian varieties.
In the 2000 season, Bing represented almost 75 percent of the Northwest cherry crop. By 2012, cherries sold as Bing represented only 22 percent of the crop. Meanwhile, varieties from British Columbia now represent 50 percent of all Northwest cherries that are identified by variety.
Bing, discovered in Oregon 138 years ago, still sets the gold standard in terms of cherry quality and consumer satisfaction, but Reggie Collins, chief executive officer at Chelan Fruit Cooperative in north central Washington, expects that other varieties will soon surpass Bing. “I absolutely believe that,” he said.
In recent years, growers have been planting varieties developed at the British Columbia breeding program in Summerland that mature earlier or later than Bing.
One of the motivations is to avoid the cherry glut at peak Bing harvest, which can sometimes come too late to hit the critical Fourth of July marketing period. Another is to stretch out the season to reduce the number of workers they need.
Some of the new, self-fertile varieties, such as Lapins and Sweetheart, are far more productive than Bing, which helps growers recoup the costs of a new planting more quickly and cover the higher costs of supplying cherries in new types of consumer packaging, rather than the traditional 20-pound bulk box.
“They have much better production per acre, and, with the costs going up in packaging, you’ve got to start looking not only at quality,” Collins said. “You have to have a cherry that produces high volume with high quality. I think we can at least double the amount of yield that we get on Bings, and that might be a conservative answer.”
Whereas Bing cherries might average 4 to 5 tons per acre, new varieties can easily produce 12 tons, and in some cases as much as 16 to 18 tons, still with acceptable fruit size. In addition, today’s wide array of varieties enables growers to select those that best match their orchard location.
Bob Mast, vice president of marketing at Columbia Marketing International (CMI) in Wenatchee, Washington, said Bing’s decline has nothing to do with customer preference. Retailers still like Bing cherries because they pack well, travel well, and hold up well on the shelf. “I think a Bing cherry is a very good, solid cherry,” he said.
It is being overtaken by other varieties simply because they’re so productive.
“The big difference is, some of those later varieties, like Sweetheart, Skeena, and Lapins, are producing much more tonnage per acre,” Mast said, noting that considerable acreage of the later varieties has been planted in recent years.
“Production per acre is really catching the industry by surprise. It’s not unusual for these orchards to yield 16, 18, or 20 tons per acre, and they are able to get good size. If you try to crop Bings that heavily, you’re not going to get the size.”
Though there’s no doubt that production of newer varieties is increasing, a large proportion of the crop is shipped without identifying the variety. The volume of cherries shipped as “dark sweets” has grown from only 3 percent of the total in 2000 to well over 40 percent today.
“We’re not getting as clear a picture as we once did because of this trend to sell just dark sweet cherries,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, who estimates that perhaps 5 percent of the dark sweets are Bing, bringing the variety up to about 30 percent of the crop.
Labeling cherries simply as “dark sweets” is a trend that both marketers and retailers seem to favor. With more than a dozen different varieties of cherries now going to market, it would be difficult for retailers to identify them in their stores, Collins said. Instead, they want to treat them like strawberries or blueberries, which are sold generically.
“There isn’t enough shelf space at the retail stores to start marketing them by variety,” he said. “If we did that, they would each have a minute space and it would be very confusing.”
Mast said retailers also don’t want to be faced with consumers showing a preference for a variety like Sweetheart that might not be available next time they shop.
“I think we would be setting ourselves up not only to confuse the consumers, but to really make it a tough thing to manage when we have that many varieties,” he said. “As long as we’re growing quality fruit, it can be any variety, as long as it’s a good-sized piece of fruit.”
Bing has such a good, long-standing reputation with consumers that some retailers use the name Bing generically to apply to all dark sweet cherries, Mast said.
“It’s something that consumers identify,” he added, “though over time that may disappear just because there are so many new varieties now.”