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James Michael has taken over the reins as promotions director for the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherries. The position was previously held by Andrew Willis, who left the commission to pursue his doctorate at the University of Washington.

Mr. Michael joined the commission July 1 as the 2009 cherry season moved into full swing. "It was nice to get my feet wet during the harvest," he told The Produce News Sept. 8. "This harvest you had the phone in one hand to your ear and were sending out an e-mail with the other hand."

A native of the Pacific Northwest who grew up in the Washington's Yakima Valley, Mr. Michael attended Linfield College in Oregon, where he earned a bachelor's degree in international business.

"The whole point was to get back to the Yakima Valley and help with the family business," he said about the family's winery in Prosser, WA. With a skill set that was equally applicable to the cherry industry, he said he is pleased to be associated with one of Washington's premier forward-thinking industries. Asked about the challenges facing the cherry industry in the coming years, Mr. Michael said, "Mother Nature sets the table for retailers every year. When cherries become available, they are sought out nationwide. Washington cherries are iconic."

Data previously collected show that cherry sales have been strong among affluent empty nesters. But Mr. Michael said that new demographic groups are emerging, particularly Generation X and Generation Y consumers. "We are looking at ways to get cherries to these groups," he said.

Information gathered for the wine industry about these groups shows that young men out of college are looking to incorporate healthy foods into their diets. "They're asking questions. They want to know what makes [wine] unique," Mr. Michael explained, adding that the observations are applicable to the cherry industry as well.

He went on to say there is great potential to share information about the unique qualities of cherries. "This is our largest future focus. It's our sweet health message," he said.

Ongoing scientific research shows how potent cherries can be as a contributor to healthy lifestyles and in fighting disease. The commission is already working on a prostate cancer campaign, and Mr. Michael said that others will follow in the future.

"There are all these amazing properties of cherries," he said. "It's a product you can feel good about and enjoy."

Mr. Michael and other staff commission members will be in attendance at this year's Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit Oct. 2-5 in Anaheim, CA, to talk about the cherry industry and the changing face of agriculture.