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To be successful in the future, cherry growers will need to reduce labor costs and inputs by using efficient orchard systems to produce high yields. But the steps to success don’t end with highly productive tree systems. Delivering fruit that results in a positive eating experience for the consumer is the key to repeat sales, and one that becomes ever more important as sweet cherry production increases and competition strengthens.

Dr. Matt Whiting, along with more than a dozen industry cooperators and researchers, is taking an integrated approach to resolving the barriers that prevent growers from achieving "efficient production of superlative fruit," which is the title he’s given to a comprehensive three-year research project. As stone fruit horticulturist for Washington State University, Whiting has studied a variety of issues relating to efficient sweet cherry production. Some of his recent projects involve evaluating new varieties and rootstocks, managing crop load, developing a mechanical harvester, and creating more efficient orchard systems.

The project combines his ongoing compact orchard systems studies with developing strategies for consistent and balanced cropping. Moreover, it adds a new consumer element to the production-oriented research—better understanding consumers’ perception of fruit quality and their willingness to pay for such quality.

Consumer perceptions

How does the consumer define sweet cherry quality? How much is the consumer willing to pay for Washington State cherries? Whiting plans to find the answers.

"As a research laboratory, we’re good at collecting and analyzing all kinds of data on cherries—firmness, size, stem color and retention, fruit color, skin color, fruit weight, sugar, and pH—attributes that may or may not represent quality," he said. "But quality is ultimately judged or defined when the consumer buys our fruit."

Whiting wonders if there a disconnect between the data analyzed from industry research and consumer preferences. Is there a better way to define quality?

"We can measure the statistical difference between a 9-gram and 8.5-gram cherry, but that may be completely meaningless to a consumer," he said. "Can a consumer reconcile between a half-gram difference or tell a palate difference between cherries with firmness readings of 242 versus 266 [grams per square millimeter]?"

To learn about consumer quality perceptions, Whiting is collaborating with Dr. Carolyn Ross, food scientist at WSU, Pullman, who will use trained sensory panels and a large-scale consumer study to elucidate the quality and sensory attributes that consumers can taste. This summer, consumer preferences and key sensory characteristics of early maturing varieties will be evaluated. Next year, the midseason varieties will undergo the same evaluations.

"We want to find the minimum unit of significance for attributes like size, firmness, and sugar," Whiting said. "We’re trying to understand the key attributes that equate to a positive or negative eating experience. That information becomes really important to our breeding program."

Previous consumer cherry-tasting surveys conducted by WSU have shown that consumers respond most to color. When asked to rank four varieties in order of their most to least favorite and tell why, the majority of respondents said that their ranking was based on the color of the fruit. Stems were not a big issue, Whiting added.

The cherry industry has primarily focused on size when defining quality because that is what can be measured and recognized, he noted. Many packing houses reward growers for larger cherries, which usually bring higher f.o.b. prices than smaller fruit. But as new sorting technology becomes available for fresh cherries, packers will have the ability to reward growers for other attributes like sugar or firmness.

Instead of talking about eliminating small, 12-row cherries, Whiting suggests that industry should discuss eliminating fruit with less-than-minimum standards for attributes like firmness or sugar. "Just because we can separate for size doesn’t mean that we should necessarily get rid of the smaller size—unless consumer preference research shows small size is undesirable."