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Temperatures dip in Stemilt cherry production acreage

Mother Nature has been a fickle lady this year.

“We’re having a very cold spring,” said Roger Pepperl, director of marketing for Stemilt Growers Inc. in Wenatchee, WA. “We didn’t have much frost, but it was unseasonably cold.” On May 5, he said daytime temperatures were hovering in the mid-60s. “But it is cold at night,” he noted.

The company grows a mix of dark sweet cherries that include Chelan, Bing and Sweetheart. “We are the heaviest planters of Skeena,” he noted. Rainier production has stabilized for the company. Mr. Pepperl said Stemilt Growers is the only producer in the region for the Staccato and Sequoia cherry varieties.

Production will begin in south central Washington around June 15 and continue during July. In August, orchards on Stemilt Hill come into production. The company has expanded its growing acreage northward in Washington. “Trees in the higher elevations haven’t budded yet,” Mr. Pepperl said. The high-elevation orchards are known as the Amigos. “There will be cherries coming in for the late season,” he said. The heaviest volumes from the ranch will be harvested from Aug. 15 through Sept. 5.

According to Mr. Pepperl, organic cherries comprise approximately six percent of Stemilt’s overall volume. He said farming cherries organically is difficult because of pest pressures. He said the spotted wing drosophilia is especially troublesome and will have an impact on the state of the organic cherry production in the coming years.

Mr. Pepperl expects Stemilt Growers will market approximately 3.5 million 20-pound-equivalent boxes this season. “The negative is we won’t have a lot of volume until June 28 or the beginning of July,” Mr. Pepperl said. He expects limited volume will be available for the popular July 4 holiday.

Stemilt Growers continues to increase its cherry production capacity. Mr. Pepperl said a new red cherry line was constructed at Olds Station, the company’s largest packing facility. The line will increase cherry throughput and enhance sorting capability. Mr. Pepperl said the facility will come on-line next month just in time for the Northwest cherry season.

The company will introduce a new three-pound clamshell for its cherries in 2011. “It’s perfect for family picnics,” Mr. Pepperl said. Bags continue in popularity at retail. “The cherry bags will have our Facebook page on them,” he went on to say.

As a company committed to environmental sustainability, he added, “We’re going to continue with Flow Wrap [on our packaging].”

Stemilt Growers continues to capitalize on consumer interest in food production with its grower-centric secondary display bins. “We have the most romantic story to tell about Stemilt,” Mr. Pepperl said. “The bins have been very successful.”