Despite a less than stellar sweet cherry season last year, marketers are optimistic about the coming crop and expect retailer enthusiasm to return as long as the industry provides good, quality fruit.
The chief executives of three major Washington State cherry producers that together represent about six million packages of sweet cherries–West Mathison of Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee; Mark Zirkle of Rainier Fruit Sales in Selah; and Ed Kershaw of Domex Marketing, Yakima–said during the Cherry Institute annual meeting that cherries are the bright spot in the produce section, being the highest revenue-producing product all year. They shared their views on retailer expectations in 2007 during a panel discussion.
"We’re in a position–if we give them good quality cherries–that they will buy and promote every last box," said Zirkle. "We should be confident that we can move cherries through the chain if we provide a cherry that the consumer wants. But it’s got to be quality, whatever that entails."
Mathison said that according to data from the Washington State Fruit Commission, retailers can make $160 per square feet of display. That is why they carry them, he said.
Kershaw added that cherries are the most exciting item that a produce manager handles all year. Retailers expect to make a lot of money from the category and will devote "as much energy as they expect to get back" when promoting the product.
California’s cherry crop has an impact on Pacific Northwest cherries, the panelists agreed. A plentiful California crop with good quality helps set a positive tone for the Northwest season.
California cherry growers have received some of the best chilling hours this winter in the last five years, according to Mathison. "That’s the first hurdle for a good crop in California."
Zirkle said that Northwest shippers want California to have a good year, with an orderly progression moving from California northward. Gaps of two weeks are too long and create unhealthy market pressures.
Additionally, when California has a small, sub-par crop, all of the retailer focus shifts to the Northwest, said Kershaw. "All of the expectations are then on Northwest cherries to carry the revenue of the category for all of the cherries that year. The retailers try to generate extra revenue to make up for the lost California revenue."
Fruit size was a problem last year, as well as quality in the beginning of the season. Will there be lingering effects in 2007 from last year’s crop?
Produce managers have very short memories, said Kershaw. "But consumers don’t. We get a lot of e-mails from consumers who always have a â€˜but’ in their message–we enjoyed your cherries, but they didn’t taste as good as last year."
Zirkle agreed that there shouldn’t be any lingering effects from the previous season because retailers want to promote cherries. However, the quality must be good to keep fruit on display.
Mathison identified one potential danger from the 2006 crop. If the retailer does program planning but doesn’t commit on price, there may be a tendency for the industry to set the early season prices too low, based on the previous year. It’s a natural response of a marketer, who remembers last year, to be hesitant about strong prices. "If the quality is good, there’s no reason why we can’t get $35 a box. The challenge will be to not leave money on the table and under-sell this year."
In Kershaw’s opinion, the most favored variety by retailers and consumers is the one that tastes the best. Just as a real estate agent’s mantra is "location, location, location," he believes that a grower should choose varieties based on taste, taste, and taste. Size is not the overriding consumer preference, as evidenced by the popularity of grape tomatoes that are small but taste good.
The difficulty is that cherry varieties don’t all taste the same every year, he said, adding that there is a slow pull through the market when they don’t taste very good.
Zirkle and Mathison agreed that Bing is still king when it comes to worldwide preferences and marketing flexibility.
"Bings are still liked the best," said Zirkle. "We can sell them anywhere in the world."
Although Mathison said that the most preferred varieties are those that are big, firm, and sweet, Bing cherries are the most flexible, arriving in consistent quality in export markets. Skeena has performed well, but export arrival has been inconsistent, perhaps because the variety has a higher respiration rate than optimum for the modified-atmosphere packages. Sweetheart handles the weather well, and Lapins, which is site sensitive, can do well in certain locations.
More and more cherry packers are using devices that measure fruit firmness, like the FirmTech fruit firmness tester, to indicate ripeness and storage and handling potential. Soluble solids are not measured yet, but Zirkle believes such measurements are coming in the future.
It takes internal discipline to set firmness standards and reject fruit not meeting the standards, said Mathison. "If fruit are allowed into the system that are below the standards bar, it creates a lot of work and a difficult environment because nobody wants to take that fruit. It spreads like wildfire when you start getting loads rejected. After the first rejected load, they seem to just keep coming."
He noted that quality standards need flexibility and must be based on the fruit that’s in the packing house’s system. Growers, given two days’ notice of their fruit firmness, may have to leave some fruit on the tree to go to greener fruit so they don’t get behind, Mathison said. "My dad had fruit that didn’t make the standards some days."
Decisions about whether fruit is too soft or doesn’t meet quality grades must be made before it’s put in the bin and brought to the packing house, he added.