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Record Northwest cherry crop moving well thanks to retail support

by Kathleen Thomas Gaspar | July 16, 2009
The 2009 Northwest cherry season has not been without its challenges, with what one marketer described as a "barnburner of a crop."

By all accounts, the Bing crop is the largest on record, with June estimates from Northwest Cherries at 16 million to 18.5 million 20-pound equivalents. That number was significantly higher than the 2007 crop, which was itself a record at just under 15 million boxes.

Mid-July estimates came in closer to 20 million boxes. Moreover, early July heat brought on cherry harvest in higher elevations at the same time that fruit was being picked in lower regions. Some bottlenecking has resulted, according to reports out of Washington.

Cherries started shipping the week of June 14, and volume peaked late that month. According to Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Rainier Fruit Co. in Selah, WA, the industry shipped 7 million boxes in 22 days, and Northwest Cherries predicted shipments will continue strong into August with good opportunity for promotion.

Terry Braithwaite, marketing director at Chelan Fresh Marketing in Chelan, WA, said that the company's retail partners have risen to the occasion. "They are doing a good job of getting pricing down, and we've been seeing a lot of great ads out there," Mr. Braithwaite told The Produce News July 10. "It's a big crop, and there is still a lot of small fruit in the pipeline," Mr. Braithwaite added. "As a company, we are fortunate to be in a position with larger fruit, but overall it's been tough. Still, we are confident we'll make it through one of the biggest crops in one of the worst economies."

Mr. Braithwaite went on to say that supply has exceeded demand on the 2009 cherries, and he added, "We're hoping the pipeline cleans out and we get a good second start. We will have a lot of large cherries on the back end of the deal, and we continue to move fruit out fresh. Nothing is going into storage." A special "Hannah Montana" tote program for cherries was to be launched the third week of July, and Mr. Braithwaite said the campaign has been well- received by retail buyers.

Scott Marboe, marketing director for Oneonta Starr Growers in Wenatchee, WA, said July 9 that overall volume turned out to be "about what we all expected."

He added, "And the size parameters were right on. Our field staff did an exceptional job this year of giving us the information."

The big crop has provided opportunities for Oneonta's export segment, and Mr. Marboe said foreign receivers have been receptive to the fruit. "Export movement has been very good," he said. "The customers are very happy with quality, and for us movement has been wonderful."

As for Oneonta's domestic marketing, Mr. Marboe said layouts were "spot on. We did have a lot less pull after July 4 than we expected, and I don't know if this was the economy or other factors. For the most part, retail ads were really aggressive. Hats off to the trade for that. There were a lot of $1.49- $1.99 ads, even on the East Coast."

Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager at Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers, said, "For the most part, we have maintained our strategy which we laid out at the beginning of the season."

Regarding the record crop, Mr. Queen said, "We have done extensive planning and forecasting with our accounts and on occasion have had to be flexible. The one thing that has not changed is our discussions with retailers to 'promote, promote and promote.' "

He added, "The crop is plentiful, good quality and has enabled retailers to provide a great value to consumers. Our retail partners are getting more aggressive with their pricing. This will be the critical component to moving the crop this year and creating traffic in the produce department. Cherry consumers spend more in the produce department when they are there, so this increased traffic really increases department lift."

From her Selah, WA, office, Ms. Wolter of Rainier Fruit Co. said that it is "no secret [the Northwest cherry industry] has the biggest crop on record." Growing conditions were excellent this year, and Ms. Wolter said depending on what was done by growers in the orchards, the cherries are good size. "We have beautiful fruit," she said, noting that retailers have stepped up to the plate aggressively.

"They've responded with good promotions," she said.

Fruit peaked just before the July 4 holiday, and Ms. Wolter said Rainier has seen "great rotation and good arrivals. We are very pleased overall." Rainier Fruit will continue to ship through early to mid-August, and Ms. Wolter said that the Rainier variety would clean up by late July.

A descriptive summation of the crop came from Grant J. Hunt Co. Marketing Director Eric Patrick, who said, "It's a barnburner of a crop. Holy cow! We've known the 'big one' has been out there for years, and it has officially hit." He added, "Timing was a few days earlier than expected in some growing areas."

Concurring with his Northwest cherry counterparts, Mr. Patrick said that pricing has been aggressive, and retailers "are responding with some of the hottest ads we've seen in years. This will be the best year for consumers to get a true value in fresh cherries after the years of the 'diamond of fruit' message of affordable luxury. Now just downright aggressive pricing has made for big ads and big displays."

Exports for Grant J. Hunt remain good, with demand "pretty strong" into China, he said.