While a California frost, gas price hikes and inflation could negatively impact the 2022 cherry season, growers are optimistic that the crops available will be of good quality and should warrant the higher prices they may demand.
The Pacific Northwest experienced a mild winter, said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing for Sage Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash. However, he said the region was still under the influence of a weak La Niña in early April, which brought cooler temperatures.
“Overall, the variable weather patterns are lending to good separation between districts and so far, we haven’t seen much frost damage,” he said.
April always is key, Sinks said, as cherry bloom occurs across Washington and Oregon, with growers keeping a close eye out for potential freezes.
“All things considered, harvest should fall in line with a typical year, which is early June,” he added, saying he expected a sizeable crop with excellent marketing potential.
Sinks said Sage Fruit will see a significant increase in its overall volume of both dark sweet and Rainier cherries, as it recently formed a partnership with Chelan Fruit, out of Chelan, Wash. The nearly 3,000-acre farming operation, with its own packing and cold storage facilities, is one of Washington’s leading fruit producers.
Jon Bailey, sales manager of the cherry category for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, B.C., said that because the 2022 season appears to be going well, there is potential for well-sized and excellent-tasting cherries.
Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers has the longest cherry season in the country, said Brianna Shales, senior marketing manager, kicking things off in California this year in mid-April and running through the end of August from Washington.
In early April, the company’s California cherries were past bloom and crop set stage, which is a good time to determine crop size, she said.
“It appears that frost in early 2022 impacted cherries in California and repeating last year’s record crop isn’t in the cards,” Shales said. “We expect the industry to ship 5.5-6 million boxes of cherries, which is on par with the average for the past eight years.”
Rich Sambado, president at Primavera Marketing Inc., a Linden, Calif.-based grower-shipper, agreed that this year’s cherry crop out of the state will be about half the record crop experienced in 2021 (more than 10 million boxes).
“The good news is early fruit is good size, so the final box should be outstanding,” he said. “But we’ll have to provide consumers with great-eating cherries, as they will be more expensive than last year.”
Cherry costs affected
While the market continues to evolve from the pandemic, we have yet to see where it will land, said Bailey of Oppy.
“One thing for sure is that costs are up at all levels, which is contributing to trends ebbing and flowing,” he said. “We hope that consumers continue see cherries as that truly seasonal item to treat themselves to when they see them at retail.”
Sinks of Sage Fruit said increased fuel pricing also has the potential to affect overall product pricing this season.
“With increased fuel costs comes increased freight costs to move product from the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the world,” he said. “In turn, the additional cost of the product will likely, in some way, be shared with the consumer.”
Shales of Stemilt added that inflation in general, not just fuel, is driving up the cost of produce and she expects that to carry over to cherries.
Sambado of Primavera Marketing said costs could climb to as much as 20% more than last year.
Cherry of a promo
When it comes to selling cherries, Sinks of Sage Fruit said visibility is key, both in-person and online. Secondary displays, category size/location and ad frequency all play key roles in higher cherry sales.
“One out of four Americans buy cherries each year, with 72% of purchases being impulse buys,” he said. “Retailers can capitalize on that by setting up a secondary display at the front door or near the checkout lanes. Secondary displays drive 13.6% more lift in volume, 22.4% more in dollars.”
Sage Fruit currently has cherry specific point-of-purchase bins available to its retail and wholesale partners at no cost.
The company’s cherry season runs from early June to mid-August. “During that time frame, our most sought-after package is a 2.25-pound pouch bag,” Sinks said. “Bags offer more value and cost savings over clamshells and top-seal packages.”
In California, Stemilt kicked off the season with its Royal cherry types, before getting into some Brooks, Tulare and Garnet varieties, Shales said. Coral is its leading California cherry variety. But the company also produce Bings and has a later Lapin cherry deal that takes its California offering to early June.
“Cherries are one of those few fruits that are not year-round,” Shales said. “By far and away, dark-sweet (or red) cherries are the dominant variety in the marketplace. It’s very important that retailers promote cherries at the right time. We have to let consumers know that cherries are available and promote them when peaks in the crop warrant it.”
Stemilt recommends refrigerated displays for cherries, and typically, merchandising them on their own—not intermixed with grapes or other fruits. “Give them the space they deserve,” Shales added.
Because retailers sell cherries in packages in the United States, it makes them easier to merchandise, she said. Refrigerated displays help maintain the important cold chain for cherries and offer consumers the best quality.
Sinks agreed, pointing out that to maximize shelf life, retailers should store cherries in refrigeration as much as possible, which has worked well for many retailers.
Storing them at room temperature will cause them to deteriorate at a much quicker rate, he said. Unlike some other fruits and vegetables, no additional wax is added to cherries.
Sage Fruit also encourages retailers to cross-merchandise during cherry season.
“Cross-merchandising with other recipe and usage ideas such as oatmeal, meat marinades, sauces, jams, salsas and pies prove that cherries are an expandable category,” Sinks said.
While Sage Fruit has added newer cherry varieties to its mix, he said consumers don’t tend to purchase cherries by specific variety.
“Rather, their main decision is between Rainier and dark sweet cherries,” Sinks said. “While proprietary varieties are beginning to enter the market, it will be a while before they have a significant impact.”
An additional factor in play when consumers make their purchase is whether they prefer conventionally grown or organically grown cherries.
“While our organic volume will continue to grow in the upcoming years, organic cherries are much more labor intensive to grow, which results in higher retail pricing,” Sinks said. “The higher pricing isn’t as attractive to the end consumer. But, as they continue to be more ‘health conscious,’ they are more likely to consider purchasing organic cherries.”
This season, Bailey said Oppy will be promoting its traditional pouch bags, along with 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-pound top-seal options.
“Pouch bags are the mainstream consumer pack, but top-seal is really gaining momentum,” he said. And with the increase in online shopping, it’s important for retailers to highlight when cherries are in season and available on their platforms, Bailey said. Otherwise, consumers won’t know your cherries are in-store like they would walking into a brick-and-mortar location.
“Creative touches like positioning cherries with other picnic items like cheese, crackers and pre-made salads can be fun too,” he said. “Putting cherries into their ‘occasion’ helps shoppers envision how to use them best and prompts sales.”
“Cherr-ish” Every Moment
Chilean cherry volume to the United States more than doubled this season, and the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association’s promotional funding increased exponentially.
“To support cherry branding and sales, we launched a new campaign that will be continued and further developed in future seasons,” said Karen Brux, managing director of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association (CFFA) and director of CAIA, San Carlos, Calif.
“Cherrish Every Moment” with Chilean cherries shows individuals and families enjoying Chilean cherries as a snack, after a workout and many other occasions.
“We incorporated these new images and taglines into online ad programs for retailers, in-store merchandising materials and social media posts,” Brux said.