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Northwest producers expecting quality stone fruit season

The starting gun will sound shortly, and the stone fruit season in the Pacific Northwest will be under way. All indications are for a successful season in 2014.

James Michael, vice president of marketing-North America for Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission, provided The Produce News with a snapshot of current conditions and season expectations.OpenerShotnwsnStone fruit producers in the Pacific Northwest are anticipating quality fruit this season with an earlier start date. Production weather has been described as ideal. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Fruit Commission)

“It’s no secret that Washington has seen ideal, consistent weather this spring,” he said. “We had better bee weather this year during bloom, and we’re maintaining ideal temperature ranges for growth. If things continue, we’ll look forward to a strong, early start to our stone fruit season.”

The season typically peaks during the last two weeks of August, with that peak maintaining through the middle of September. “If the warm weather holds, retailers will likely be seeing that peak available a week earlier — starting in the second week of August,” Michael commented. “For retailers capitalizing on the late season Northwest cherry potential, that makes a nice opportunity to offer consumers another high-quality, peak-of-season piece of fruit.”

According to Michael, grower feedback points toward a stone fruit crop similar to 2013 in terms of timing and volume “with a little more volume and an earlier start. Apricot volume is expected to be up 9 percent from last year’s crop.”

Acreage in stone fruit production in the Northwest has remained relative stable over the past several years. The one exception to this has been the apricot category. “New varieties and increased consumer demand for Washington apricots have led growers to dedicate more acreage,” Michael noted.

The majority of Northwest stone fruit is “gobbled up” by the domestic marketplace. “However, we do export to Canada and Mexico, as well as limited quantities to Singapore and Taiwan,” Michael said. “Canada has demanded attention as a market this season. So there will be some targeted programs focusing on quality and consumption.”

Organic stone fruit production continues to some increase in the region. “Organic peaches are growing nationally at three times the rate of the conventional category, but still only account for 2.1 percent of total peach sales,” he said.

The commission continues to follow marketplace research to get details about consumer trends when it comes to purchases of stone fruit. He offered some insights about these spending patterns and consumption. “People are obviously still watching their household budgets. However, and this is especially true for the premium stone fruit shopper, it seems they are exhibiting signs of continued frugal fatigue — confidence down and discretionary spending up,” he said. “When that aligns with high-quality produce within a tolerable price range, up to two out of three consumers will trade up for the better ingredient. And few things grab attention like the smell of a ripe peach when you walk by a produce department. And when they get it home and try a Washington peach with its great sugar-acid balance, it seals the deal.

“Peaches index high with health-focused consumers who are more likely to take time to cook with more fresh ingredients,” he said, “In contrast, the typical non-peach buyer is focused on value and quick-cooking convenience.”

Michael’s bottom-line message: “My advice to retailers would be to follow the Northwest cherries message — merchandise and advertise superior quality stone fruit to attract high-value shoppers to your stores and encourage their repeat sales. If they take time to cook, they’ll have time to notice the quality difference.”