Kim and Troy Toftness with their children Brock and Brylee. Their Skylar Rae cherry brand is named after their first daughter who lived for only 49 days.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE TOFTNESS FAMILY
Cherry growers Troy and Kimberly Toftness are seeing international interest in the new cherry brand Skylar Rae (Tip Top cultivar) discovered several years ago at their orchard at Wenatchee Heights in Washington.
It is a blushed cherry that resembles Rainier, but is sweeter and firmer and appears to have resistance to rain cracking and bruising. It matures about five to seven days before Bing.
Troy and Kim operate Tip Top Orchard, LLC, with their parents, Robert and Nancy Van Hoven and Jack and June Toftness. Troy discovered the new variety in 2004 when he noticed that one tree in a block of Sweetheart cherries was quite different from the rest. They took some of the fruit to Jack Snyder at C&O Nursery, who put it through rigorous testing and was impressed with the results.
Last season, when they produced their first commercial crop, the average soluble solids averaged about 25 Brix with firmness at around 550 grams per millimeter, Troy reports. The volume was enough to do test marketing and consumer sampling at a Whole Foods store in Bellevue, Washington. The store sold their 27 boxes of Skylar Rae brand cherries in one weekend.
“They got really excited and gave us front and center of the store,” Troy said.
This year, Whole Foods’s distribution center for the Pacific Northwest, which supplies 18 stores, will take all of their production. The family has 36 acres of the variety and is planting more.
The brand is named after Troy and Kim’s first child, Skylar Rae, who was born in 2004 with a congenital defect and lived for only 49 days. The family felt this would be a way to keep her memory alive.
Snyder helped them to patent the variety under the name TipTop with Skylar Rae as the registered trademark. C&O Nursery is licensed to propagate and sell the cultivar and to use the trademark throughout the world.
At first, the family intended to allow anyone to grow the variety. But a couple of years ago, they began to set up a managed system, which they hope will ensure that growers receive a good return.
“We changed our vision, as we saw the red cherry market crumble beneath our feet last season,” Troy said. “We tried to come up with a program that will give us longevity of the variety.”
Last season, Whole Foods sold Skylar Rae for $6.99 a pound. Troy said he felt that was a fair price that would give growers a good return and provide a good experience for the consumer.
Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, is packing the fruit and Blind Renaissance of Wenatchee developed packaging and promotional materials to differentiate the Skylar Rae brand from other cherries.
So far, six growers have commercial plantings of the variety, and another 50 or so growers are testing it. There are two test plantings in California, and growers in Australia, Chile, and South Africa are interested in trying it after the planting material goes through quarantine.
Troy said Stemilt helped them with geomapping to identify good locations for the variety, and he envisions that the season will begin with supplies from California and end in August with fruit from high-elevation orchards in Washington. He expects a total of 200 acres will be in the ground by 2015.
Growers will need to sign contracts before receiving trees and pay a production royalty based on the value of the fruit. To sell the fruit under the Skylar Rae brand and use the marketing materials, growers must meet specified standards.