Skeena cherries came off this tree, leaving only their stems.

Skeena cherries came off this tree, leaving only their stems.

Critical to the potential for mechanically harvesting stem-free sweet cherries is understanding consumers’ perceptions of the fruit and their willingness to purchase stem-free cherries.

In recent years, the sweet cherry research program at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser conducted consumer surveys assessing the significance of stems. These surveys constitute one aspect of a larger project investigating the potential for mechanical harvest of fresh-market-quality, stem-free sweet cherries.

In 2005, an appearance/ taste test compared consumers’ response to Bing cherries with and without stems in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In Calgary, 39 percent of the consumers surveyed preferred the novel stem-free sweet cherry to the conventional cherry with a stem, while 50 percent of those surveyed preferred cherries with stems, and 11 percent had no preference.

In 2006, in cooperation with Oregon State University’s Dr. Anna Marin of the Food Innovation Center, and Lynn Long, Extension educator, surveys were conducted in and near Portland, Oregon, assessing consumers’ responses to the appearance and taste of cherries with and without stems. In Portland, consumers were presented with cherries (in one-pound clamshell packs) three days after harvest and asked to first judge product appearance. More than half of the respondents preferred the stem-free product, with 40 percent preferring with stems, and 8 percent had no preference. Mean overall appearance rating on a 0 to 10 hedonic scale (0 = dislike extremely, 10 = like extremely) was significantly higher for the stem-free cherry at 6.6 versus 6.3 for the conventional cherry. Respondents ranked color as the most important fruit attribute.

Stems immaterial?

In subsequent taste testing, consumers ranked the products similarly (7.1 for stem-free compared with 6.9 for the cherries with stems). In a preliminary assessment of willingness to purchase, 65 percent of respondents were willing to pay $2.99 per pound for both types of cherries. There was no difference associated with stems.

After two weeks in commercial cold storage, mean overall appearance ratings were similar for both products. However, following taste tests, consumers again preferred stem-free cherries, rating them at 7.0 overall, compared with 6.7 for cherries with stems. Almost 60 percent of consumers surveyed were willing to pay $2.99 per pound, and, again, there was no difference between fruit with or without stems.