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.
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