Organic cherry acreage in Washington State was up. Now it’s down. What’s behind the flux in acreage?

Organic cherry acreage reached a high of nearly 2,450 acres in 2009, according to data from the Washington State Department of Agriculture. But the latest certified organic acreage numbers for 2012 show a drop to less than 1,800 acres, a decline of 26 percent.

In 2008, there were nearly 800 acres in transition compared with less than 15 acres in 2011 and 2012.

In a 2012 Washington State University report on the status of organic tree fruit, sustainable agriculture specialist David Granatstein explained that although organic cherry supply has increased, growth in sales has lagged, with a large proportion of the harvested organic cherries being sold in the conventional market. Industry sources estimate 30 to 50 percent of organic cherries are sold as nonorganic fruit in any given year, he said. Market challenges of supply chain delivery problems, inadequate retail support and advertising, and price elasticity also limit movement of organic cherries, he added.

Good Fruit Grower asked Harold Austin of Zirkle Fruit Company, Selah, Washington, to explain the nuances of organic cherry production. Austin oversees the product compliance for Zirkle’s organic tree fruit and blueberry production.

Organic cherries got a boost a year or so ago when gibberellic acid, a naturally occurring growth regulator that aids in fruit firmness, was approved for the organic materials list, Austin said. “Before that, organic cherry growers couldn’t use gibberellic acid, and it was real difficult to be in the export market and ship to places like the United Kingdom and European Union. Without GA, the fruit was just too soft.”

Producing a consistent supply of organic cherries has been more difficult than other tree fruit like apples, he said. Several factors have influenced the industry’s ability to have a consistent supply of organic fruit at the retail level.

For example, pest pressures can affect the grower’s ability to stay organic. “Growers have had problems with powdery mildew and black cherry aphid,” he said. “Both of those pests can be really hard to control in some years and in some areas. Often, it’s a matter of saving your crop and losing the organic status.”

Further, when supplies are inconsistent, retailers switch to conventional product, he said, and then the organic product must fight to regain shelf space.

Nearly 30 percent of the organic cherry acreage is not reported by variety, according to WSDA data. The highest organic acreage by a specified variety is Bing (17 percent); followed by Chelan (12 percent) and tart cherry (10 percent). Rainier and Skeena each comprise 8 percent of the organic acreage.

In the last three years, f.o.b. prices for organic cherries have averaged $55 for a standard equivalent box. Prices for conventional cherries have averaged around $15 less than the organic price, reports WSU’s Granatstein.