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Cherries have lagged behind other tree fruits in terms of transitioning to organic, but that’s changing.

It used to be difficult for organic growers to control cherry fruit fly, a quarantine pest, with sufficient confidence, but a new type of pest control, which became available about five years ago, has made it much easier, notes Harold Ostenson, organic program manager with Stemilt Growers, Inc., headquartered in Wenatchee, Washington.

The attract-and-kill insecticide GF-120 (spinosad), which is registered for organic production as well as conventional, has proven to be effective and economical. It can be squirted on trees from an all-terrain vehicle, rather than sprayed.

"That’s probably the greatest thing going, whether you’re conventional or organic," Ostenson said. "So now, from having a relatively small amount of organic cherries, there’s a big chunk that feels confident in growing top-quality organic cherries."

As a result, certified organic cherry production in Washington State looks set to more than double by 2009. The prediction is that the state’s organic cherry production will increase by 15 percent this year, 30 percent in 2008, and 54 percent in 2009. By Ostenson’s calculations, that would bring the organic crop to about 9,000 tons.

Stemilt has been producing just over half of the organic cherries in the state so far.

Last year, during the first 20 days of the season, just three warehouses handled 97 percent of the organic cherries. However, Ostenson expects to see other packing houses quickly ramp up production.

That means that organic cherries will transition from a spot market—where you supply the market off and on during the season, and if there’s too much product at any time, the price goes down—to a market where marketers can assure retailers of season-long supplies.

Stemilt, for example, can start the season with organic cherries from Stemilt Chinchiolo in California in early May and run all summer long, ending in mid-August with cherries from its latest district, Wenatchee Heights. It is transitioning more cherries into organic in both of those areas.

Premiums

It’s not a matter of producers pushing organic cherries onto the market, Ostenson said, and premiums of around 50 percent for organic cherries last season reflect that.

"We actually need more. We have large stores that have said, ‘We want to take your organic until you’re out of organic, and then we’ll take your transitional until you’re out of transitional, and then we’ll take conventional.’"

For growers, it’s less risky to produce organic cherries than organic apples, because the market for processed organic cherries sets a high floor price, he said. Whole cull cherries can be diverted for processing into frozen cherries, while poorer culls can go to the juice market. So far, prices have been high—up to 90 cents a pound for freezer cherries—because there’s not enough product to meet demand, Ostenson said. That’s an important consideration as production of fresh organic cherries increases.

But cherries going to the fresh market must be large and exceptional quality, he emphasized.

Organic consumers will pay high prices for cherries, but have high expectations, too. "They’ll pay $15 a pound, but it had better be a 10-row cherry, and it had better have sugar."

There is no market for small, poor quality organic cherries, which organic consumers don’t want at any price. And so, organic may not be the way to breathe new life into an old Lambert orchard, because the fruit will have to compete with Sweetheart on the late market.

Additional costs

Ostenson said organic is not a market for every grower, as there’s less room for error, but good growers who produce cherries that both look and taste good can be very successful with organic.

However, growers face additional costs to produce organic cherries. For example, weed control is difficult. A ground cloth is effective, but expensive. Crop load management—with products like fish oil and lime sulfur—will be critical to ensure good fruit size.

Suzanne Wolter, marketing director at Rainier Fruit, Selah, Washington, the marketing arm of Zirkle Fruit Company, sees the high costs as a barrier to increasing production of organic cherries.

Zirkle is planning for a major increase in production of organic apples—going from 5 percent of its production last season to 15 percent by 2008—but it won’t have a significant increase in organic cherries.

Cherries are more difficult to produce organically than apples, Wolter said, because yields and quality can vary from year to year, depending on the weather. Without a significant premium, organic cherry production might not be feasible.

"There is a market," she said. "But the challenge with organic cherries is that the cost of production is extremely high, and the retailers are struggling with the ability to price the product significantly higher than the conventional product. How much more can they get for the organic cherry? That’s why we have to be careful on the production side. What’s the market willing to bear? We’re trying to balance cost of production with demand from the retail segment."

Retailers are finding there’s a price point at which the organic consumer will back off, especially if the quality does not match that of lower-cost conventional fruit, she said.

"I think as growers look at their organic cherry production, they need to really be communicating with their marketing agencies on the demand that’s out there, and how to keep the appropriate amount of supply and demand balanced…."