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The blush color of Rainier cherries sets the fruit apart in the marketplace. But color is also one of the cherry’s biggest challenges. Consumers must be educated that the light-colored cherries are sweet and ripe.

Production trends of Rainier and the early Rainier-type variety called Early Robin have shown steady increases in acreage and volume. For the last five years, Rainier has represented between 7 and 11 percent of the total crop, and it’s now the third most popular variety grown in the Pacific Northwest, behind Bing and Sweetheart.

In 2012, the Rainier cherry pack was just below 2.3 ­million 15-pound boxes (out of a total crop size of 23.3 million 20-pound boxes), which was an increase in Rainier production of more than 11.5 percent over the previous year and 14 percent more than 2009, according to data from the Northwest Cherry Growers.

The blush cherries have developed strong demand in certain domestic and ­foreign markets and usually fetch a dollar more per pound than dark, sweet cherries. Average domestic retail prices of blush cherries in 2012 were around $4.10 per pound. The last Washington fruit tree survey in 2010 indicated that about 5,000 acres of blush cherries were planted in the state. Nurseries have reported strong sales of Rainier and Early Robin trees. Many new orchards have been planted on dwarfing or semidwarfing rootstocks in high-density plantings and are still coming into production.

So, what do increasing volumes mean for a variety that is more expensive to grow and pack than dark red cherries? Will the rosy blush of profitability continue or will grower returns start to slip as more Rainiers come on the market?

A panel of growers, shippers, and marketers shared their views on the future of the Rainier and blush cherries during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in December. The panelists agreed that the variety’s future hinges on avoiding the peak cherry production period, educating consumers, and ­producing quality.

Strengths

Robert Kershaw, fifth generation of the Kershaw family who’s now president of Domex Superfresh Growers of Yakima, said that once consumers learn about Rainier cherries, sales go well. “It takes a while for consumers to learn what it is,” he said, adding that the variety doesn’t sell well in the Northeast region because consumers there grew up with a white, tart cherry and think all blush cherries are tart. “But in other parts of the country, they have sold well, and in some regions, they sell even with dark, sweet cherries—and that’s at a higher price.”

Chelan Fresh Marketing’s export sales manager Marc Spears said that size and color set Rainiers apart from dark cherries in export markets. “But the biggest strength of Rainier is size. Those 9.5-row Rainier cherries really set themselves apart.”

Color is both a strength and weakness of the variety. The unique color stands out, but consumers don’t know if the fruit is ripe or not. More consumer education is needed. “Rainier has a lot going for it, and it’s done well in export markets, but only on the large sizes.”

Consumers buying the blush cherry tend to come from urban, densely populated areas, are 35 to 44 years old, and make $130,000 per household, reported James Michael, domestic promotions director for the Northwest Cherry Growers, the promotion arm for cherry producers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Montana. The variety is popular with several ethnic groups (Asians and Hispanics) and has huge growth potential in the country’s central region.

Weaknesses

Shelf space, or lack of refrigerated shelf space, is the biggest challenge Michael sees at the retail level, along with consumer education. Rainiers do well when sold in a secondary display outside the produce section, he said, pointing to a 33 percent lift in volume of sales of Rainiers in a secondary display market study conducted in 2009.

Kershaw believes that the short market window is the primary weakness of Rainier. “We have one variety, and one early variety, and that’s it. We need to expand the Rainier market with a late variety,” he said. “The length of the season is a huge issue.”

Retailers, who have become accustomed to selling cherries through August, don’t understand why the variety has a two-week season. And because California grows few Rainiers, there is not an early front to the variety, he said.

“However, we need to avoid the July 4 to 19 period,” Kershaw stressed. “That’s the stay-out period. We need earlier and later blush varieties, not midseason.”

The Rainier is a delicate variety and shows bruising, which is why special packing lines are used for Rainiers. In export markets, importers must be educated about the importance of refrigeration and gentle handling, Spears said.

Although delicate, Rainier cherries travel well to export markets because they don’t show pitting that often appears with dark varieties.

Spears also sees a limitation in the export market with Rainier’s short season, and agrees that more varieties are needed to lengthen the market window.

“Quality is also important in export markets,” Spears said, explaining that the expectation for quality is extremely high in foreign markets, and importers are ­willing to pay more for the premium quality.

­Overseas buyers often visit the Pacific Northwest to see the cherries they are buying and make sure the fruit is sweet enough, Spears said. “They want Brix between 19 and 20—nothing less than 17.”

Currently, less than 1 percent of cherry consumers are solely Rainier buyers, Michael reported. “Overall, in domestic markets, there’s room for both blush and dark sweet cherries. Consumers that are attracted to Rainiers are willing to spend more for a premium product.”

But what happens if Northwest growers increase production from 2 million boxes to 8 million? Is there room for both blush and dark red cherries? More importantly, can the price differential hold?

Huge opportunity

Kershaw sees huge opportunity for blush varieties—as long as growers are on the edges of the peak season. “If we don’t avoid the peak, the market will collapse, and the variety will fight with dark, sweet varieties that are not as expensive to produce and pack.”

Michael believes consumer education will help ­continue to grow the Rainier market.

Opportunity exists in the export market for high quality Rainiers, said Spears, stressing that the export market demands high quality fruit.

Kershaw, too, believes there is huge opportunity to expand the export market. The majority of Rainiers are consumed domestically; only about 12 percent are exported.