Northwest cherries looking to rebound
After a cool spring spent lounging in the breeze, the Northwest cherry crop has sprung to life with quality and volume.
“There is great potential relative to crop volume and fruit size,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherries, based in Yakima, WA. Northwest cherry growers round 1 estimate, projects 19 million 20 pound boxes for the 2023 crop size, a 50 percent increase over last year.
Regarding timing, Thurlby said, “this year’s bloom timing was a full 14 to 20 days behind our 2022 bloom pattern.” He pointed to May’s uptick in temperatures, which have resulted in full bloom in all but the very latest orchards.
Kaci Komstadius of Sage Fruit, confirmed the timing, saying, “our season looks to be running about 10 days later than a typical season.” Sage Fruit reports seeing good separation between districts, allowing for promotable volume well into the month of August.
Catherine Gipe-Stewart, director of marketing for Superfresh Growers, touched on the pre-season effort that has gone into setting up their cherry season. “Many of our orchard blocks are showing nice size potential for this summer crop due to pruning from earlier this year,” she said.
Speaking to retailers, Rochelle Bohm, vice president of marketing at CMI Orchards said, “Savvy retailers will make the most of this short but sweet sales season by capitalizing on impulse cherry buys with CMI’s high-graphic, sales-boosting displays.” CMI features staples like American Dream, a feelgood program that gives back, and XXL Cherries, CMI’s premiere jumbo cherry program. “These will capture initial sales and keep them coming back for more all summer long,” she said.
Tyler Johnson, sales manager at Rainier Fruit, said, “this year should provide the opportunity for retailers to generate dollars in the category, and offer great product to customers throughout the season. A wider range of sizing will create room for more of the ‘value seeking’ customers at attractive price points.”
As for retail trends, Dan Davis, director of business development for Starr Ranch stressed the importance of messaging and positioning within the produce department. “Availability is key as people look forward to cherries every summer, so driving awareness of availability is critical for retailers. Make sure cherries are conspicuous in the department and they’ll end up in most carts.”
For some Northwest growers geography makes all the difference.
Brianna Shales, director of marketing for Stemilt Growers, said, “We focus on locales where daytime temperatures are warm and nighttime temperatures drop to cool down trees.” That temperature swing is crucial for building sugars in the fruit and delivering consistency in size, flavor, and texture. “The various latitudes and altitudes extend our season late into the summer and are a big part of how we produce premium quality cherries,” she said.
High elevation is key for Stemilt and Hood River Cherry Co. whose operations extend late into the season because of their industry defying altitude. “Our operation at elevation gets going around the end of the first week in August and we’re still packing fruit through the first of September,” said Kristoff Fowler, field manager for Hood River Cherry Co.
As for innovation, Fowler went on to highlight Hood River’s night harvest program. “The decision was two-fold, first our workers are a lot happier as it’s much cooler, and the cherries actually shine in the light, so they are easier to pick — leaving a lot less fruit on the trees,” said Fowler.
Expansion and partnership were also common themes to Northwest growers. This year, Superfresh Growers added a state-of-the-art packing line, adding 30 percent to its cherry production. “The additional capacity will ensure freshness and speed to consumers, delivering cherries fresh off of tree,” said Gipe-Stewart.
For a second season, Sage Fruit has partnered with Chelan Fruit. The deal brings with it a nearly 3,000-acre operation of apples, pears and cherries, complete with packing lines and cold storage facilities. Komstadius said, “The additional acreage Chelan Fruit will be contributing, spans the northern growing region of Washington state, providing Sage Fruit with greater geographical diversification.”
Honeybear Brands added a new Washington cherry facility in Pateros, WA, increasing scale to Honeybear’s cherry production, which is anchored by its state-of-the-art packing facility in Brewster, WA. “The addition will continue to provide retail partners with the highest quality apples and cherries in the state of Washington,” said Don Roper, vice president of marketing for Honeybear.