California tomato shipments under way

California shipped its first load of mature green tomatoes on Tuesday, June 2, marking the start of the season, according to the U.S. Market News Service.

Several more loads were shipped during the June 1-5 week, which puts the crop about a week ahead of schedule. If all goes as expected, California will have mature greens through about mid-November. The mature green is a great foodservice tomato and also used by repackers across the country.

Joe Bernardi, president of Bernardi & Associates Inc., operates a summer office out of Turlock, CA, in the San Joaquin Valley, to work the deal. Because of California’s well-publicized drought, Bernardi said the acreage is down about 10 percent this year.

While the California season gets under way, there are also tomatoes from several other locations including crossing from Mexico into California, Arizona and Texas. The Market News Service reported on Friday, June 5, that tomato demand was moderate with a steady market. The market has been off for months so any strengthening is a welcome sight for grower-shippers. Many varieties of vine-ripened tomatoes, including grape and plum tomatoes, were selling in single digits, according to Market News. The one exception was Roma tomatoes, which had a market in the $11-$13 range depending upon size.

Baja California was currently providing vine-ripe and some of the other specialty varieties with supplies considered to be good.

One negative comment about this spring and summer’s grape tomato crop came from Stuart Gilfenbain of Eclipse Berry Farms LLC in Oxnard, CA. Gilfenbain’s firm was one of the pioneers in grape tomatoes more than a decade ago and has specialized in the crop ever since. In fact, for many years, Gilfenbain said his company was the largest grape tomato grower in the United States, supplying the commodity from June through December from its Ventura County acreage. It specialized in that variety exclusively. But no more. “We have no grape tomatoes this year and you can blame Mexican production,” he told The Produce News in late May.

He explained that the low cost of production in Mexico led to increased supplies and an oversupply situation. The market price has been depressed the last couple of years and so Eclipse decided not to plant grape tomatoes this year. Gilfenbain said some of the acreage was planted with strawberries. He indicated no plans to return to the grape tomato deal next year.

Many commercial tomato growers are eyeing the homegrown deals to see how they have survived Mother Nature this spring. There was a lot of rain in the Midwest down through Texas and there was an extended cold streak through much of the country during what would normally be prime tomato planting season. The homegrown deal is impossible to quantify as it encompasses so many states, districts and small growers, even of the backyard variety. Tomatoes are a favorite of everyone and even a few plants in the backyard – multiplied by the millions of people who do that – cut down on demand during the summer months. This spring inclement weather in various locales may greatly decrease supplies and lead to a good market for the commercial growers.

Bernardi noted in late May that he hasn’t heard anything about the smaller deals, which leads him to believe a shortage may be in the making. Bernardi has offices all over the United States and stands ready to fill the needs of his customers if a demand exceeds supply situation unfolds later this summer.

Homegrown deals follow the sun and the rising temperatures. As it heats up, harvests begin. Look for product from the South first and then moving northward as the summer moves on. August typically represents the peak of that volume.

Stemilt introduces Skylar Rae cherry

Stemilt Growers is introducing a new cherry, and a third SKU to the cherry category, with the launch of Skylar Rae brand Tip Top cultivar cherries in select markets beginning this week. Grown and marketed exclusively by Stemilt, the Tip Top cherry cultivar, which goes to market under the Skylar Rae brand, is a bi-colored cherry with a firm texture and flavor profile that makes it “The sweetest cherry you’ll ever eat,” according to the company.Stemilt-Skylar-Rae-bunches-of-cherries

“Skylar Rae cherries are very unique. They are both extremely firm and sweet, with naturally high sugar levels that make it the sweetest cherry on the market,” West Mathison, Stemilt president, said in a press release. “Though volumes are limited in 2015, we are very excited to start introducing Skylar Rae cherries to consumers, and look forward to increased volumes as trees come into production in the years to come.”

Boasting a golden yellow skin with a partial to full orange-red blush, and a firm and nearly colorless flesh, Skylar Rae cherries contain a high sugar content, measuring in at 23-25 Brix. In comparison, Rainier cherries contain average Brix of 19-23 and dark sweet cherries are 17-20.

The new variety was discovered growing by chance in a Wenatchee, WA, orchard back in 2005.  Rarely do varieties that appear by chance in nature end up being viable for commercial production, but this was an exception. The parentage of the new cherry is unknown and believed to be a natural mutation of one tree that was planted years prior from nursery stock.

The Toftness family, growers at Stemilt who have been farming cherries at their Tip Top Orchards in Wenatchee for more than a decade, discovered the new cherry shortly after suffering the unimaginable loss of their infant daughter, Skylar Rae Toftness. Because of the timing of the discovery and events that surrounded it, the family knew this cherry was a rare gift from nature meant to honor their daughter, so when it came time to trademark a brand name for the fruit, it was a unanimous decision that the cherry should be called, Skylar Rae.

Earlier this year, the Tip Top cherry cultivar was granted its own varietal classification by the International Federation for Produce Standards, making it the first sweet cherry to be given its own price look-up (PLU) number in years. The cherry joins dark-sweet and Rainier as the third sweet cherry SKU in the produce department, and will use PLU No. 3448.

Stemilt will market Skylar Rae cherries in two packages during its short, four-week season: a convenient 1.25-pound pouch bag, and a smaller one-pound clamshell. Skylar Rae cherries will appear in limited volumes in select markets from mid-June to mid-July this season. Stemilt continues extensive plantings of the cherry and expects production to increase significantly in the future as trees come into production.

“The extra sweet flavor and crisp bite of Skylar Rae cherries combine to deliver a one-of-a-kind, dessert eating experience that today’s consumers are looking for. We think Skylar Rae is quite special, and know that after one bite, consumers will love it too,” said Mathison.

Stemilt is currently highlighting Skylar Rae cherries in the Featured Product Showcase at United Fresh 2015, and at its booth, No. 1456.

Giumarra, retail partners bring Sesame Street to Pacific Northwest

Sesame Street’s Oscar recently helped Giumarra get the word out to children and their parents to eat more produce. The company displayed its "Nature’s Partner" branded watermelons at Grocery Outlet’s annual sponsored produce “Freshtival,” held June 5-7 in select regional stores serviced by Portland-based United Salad.watermelon

Giumarra supplied Nature’s Partner eat brighter!-labeled watermelons featuring Oscar the Grouch. The labels include a peel-off, kid-friendly recipe and are packed in coordinating "Sesame Street" eat brighter! melon bins.

Giumarra also supplied eat brighter! melon coloring pages, courtesy of the Produce Marketing Association and Sesame Workshop. The pages encourage increased produce consumption by featuring a three-week chart for kids to color in a fruit or vegetable they eat every day. Demo staff for the event received talking points about watermelons and eat brighter! program objectives.

“Grocery Outlet has been committed to the eat brighter! program since its inception, using 'Sesame Street' characters in our print ad circulars and supporting suppliers such as Giumarra who have actively promoted this program through packaging and displays,” Don Murphy, director of produce and floral for Grocery Outlet, said in a press release. “We look forward to working with our partners Giumarra and United Salad as we continue to educate our customers on the benefits of eating fresh, healthy meals.”

Giumarra offers "Sesame Street" eat brighter! packaging on watermelons, grapes and blueberries, and plans to expand the line this fall with additional commodities.

“We believe the eat brighter! program is a fun and educational way to connect kids with the importance of eating fresh produce,” Kellee Harris, Western region business manager for Giumarra, said in the release. “Grocery Outlet and United Salad are committed to this program and we look forward to future promotions to continue carrying the eat brighter! message to families and their children nationwide.”

Table grape industry growth anticipated into the future

California's table grape industry is alive and thriving. Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, provided The Produce News with a snapshot of the industry and the ways in which it is evolving.

“California's table grape crop value has continued to increase in recent years and has been more than $1 billion each season since 2004. Today, it is estimated at $1.8 billion.”

At the current time,GrapeCropOVVolume for California's table grape growers has continued to increase in recent years. Cultivation practices — including planting of newer varieties, higher product yield and trellising practices — have had a positive impact on the industry. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Vineyards) Bedwell said approximately 460 growers and marketers are producing and moving 117 million boxes of table grapes annually.

Table grape acreage, he went on to say, has remained relatively stable in recent years. According to collected data, California has a total of 928,000 acres planted to grapes for all purposes. Of this total, 121,000 acres are devoted to table grape production. Raisin varieties, which can be used for fresh or wine production, are grown on another 192,000 acres. Wine vineyards account for the balance of production at 615,000 acres.

Although the number of acres for raisin grapes is higher than acreage for table grapes, Bedwell, “The real difference is in the value of the crops.” He said the value of raisin grapes is approximately $700,000 compared to $1.8 billion for table grapes.

The total volume of California table grapes has continued to increase in recent years for several reasons. “Efficiency is what's really carrying this segment of the industry,” Bedwell commented.

Cultivation practices responsible for increased volume include planting of newer varieties, higher yields on the vines and trellising which allows for higher density planting.

Looking at production over the past three years, Bedwell said the dark-skinned, translucent Scarlet Royal variety occupies the pole position for production, with volume doubling during this time frame. Flame Seedless, a firm and juicy summer grape characterized by a sweet/tart flavor profile, is the second largest by volume. In third position is the green Autumn King, another firm and juicy variety, which is harvested in the fall. Bedwell said Autumn King has also enjoyed a doubling of volume in the past three years.

In fourth position is Crimson Seedless, a variety which is on a declining trend, he went on to say.

Innovations continue to take place at the grower level as new proprietary varieties are commercialized in response to changing consumer preferences and production challenges. Two examples of proprietary grapes are the Holiday Seedless and Cotton Candy grapes.

“Cotton Candy has gathered a lot of attention,” Bedwell commented. “It really tastes like cotton candy.”

Mandatory water restrictions in California have made daily headlines in national news. “Water is a commodity that is commodity- and location-specific,” Bedwell stated. He said both the Coachella Valley and southern San Joaquin Valley have adequate groundwater to lessen the impact for table grape growers. Kern and Tulare counties, major players in the California table grape deal, are situated in the San Joaquin Valley.

“In the short term, we should not see a disruption at all,” Bedwell stated, adding that real impacts could be felt by 2020 and beyond if the water situation in the Golden State does not improve.

Adapting is key to success, says Roundy's CEO

Retailer Bob Mariano kicked off the United Fresh Produce Association convention in Chicago with a rousing endorsement of brick and mortar food retailing, though he admitted adaptation is the key to success, as it always has been.

But the current chairman, president and chief executive officer of Roundy's Inc., a Midwest supermarket chain based in Milwaukee, WI, does not believe supermarkets will take the path of bookstores in the face of online retailing. He believes the sensory nature of food will always resonate with consumers and they will want that hands-on experience.

That does not mean that Mariano believes the status quo will suffice. "Change is constant," he said.

Retailers have adapted to many changes in the past and will continue to do so. He marveled at the fact that he can now buy cheese in his local hardware store, along with a hammer and nails and other traditional tools. Today, he said, customers have access to food shopping from many more channels than ever before.

In fact, the Roundy's CEO launched his own new venue a few years ago in the Chicago-based Mariano's chain. There are now 30 of these retail outlets throughout the Chicago metropolitan area. In designing these stores, the Roundy's president drew from his experience of working for and running Dominick's Finer Foods in Chicago for most of his career.

He said at Mariano's they "celebrate food" rather than just sell it. To his line of thinking, that is what will appeal to today's consumers, especially millennials.

He said today's consumers no longer believe they need to choose between healthy, good-for-you food and good-tasting food. They want both, and the produce department is where thy can find it. He characterized Mariano's "as the physical convergence of fresh and fun" in the food world.

Driving this change is millennials, said this Baby Boom Generation CEO. He noted that 75 percent of the growth in food sales over the next decade will be fueled by millennials. Sometime in 2015, it is projected that millennials will become the largest block of population in the United States, supplanting Baby Boomers, who have held that title through several generations.

"Millennials want to enjoy eating healthy," he said.

That obviously is great news for the produce department, which Mariano said is the cornerstone of his namesake chain, as well as every other successful retailer in the United States. Consumers are wary of processed foods and want healthy alternatives. Mariano said in some ways "we are going back to the future and the produce department must welcome them back home."

He said the transition toward better-tasting, healthier food is well under way and pointed to the tomato industry as one example. Tomatoes, he said, have become a $1.4 billion business by expanding their offerings and appealing to this consumer need to have fun food. The category has exploded in the last 10 years with new varieties, colors, shapes and sizes.

The Mariano chain is trying to capitalize on this trend with new departments in the store such as a juice bar. He urged the crowd to come by one of the stores while they are in Chicago and try a "super kale smoothie." He admitted that three years ago he hardly knew what a juice bar was.

Mariano's also engages its customers in other areas as the stores include a wellness shop and cooking classes. When talking to customers, associates are just as likely to give them a recipe as tout an item on sale. The chain has also got very involved with the community and Mariano said he feels an obligation to help eradicate food deserts that leave urban consumers without healthy choices. The chain is currently building a store in Chicago's South Side to give thousands of residents access to a supermarket within walking distance of their homes.

Organics is another area where Mariano sees continued growth. He noted that research shows that 44 percent of millennials place a great deal of importance on organics compared to only half that many baby boomers. It has become a $13 billion business with annualized growth of 11 percent. One third of organic sales are in produce and it represents about 12 percent of produce sales, he said.

In creating similar retail successes, Mariano urged the audience to "listen...listen to your customers, your people and your trading partners."

Produce, he said, is "perfectly positioned" for big growth and he reiterated his proposition that people will always want to touch what they are going to eat. They might not need to do that with regard to the books they read or the devices they plug in, but when they put something in their body they want to touch it and smell it, he promises. Mariano has built a career on that belief and he expects that idea to live on his legacy supermarket chain.