YAKIMA, Wash. — Celebrating their largest crop and profitable prices from the 2014 season, Pacific Northwest cherry growers expect a slightly smaller 2015 crop because of freeze damage to cherry trees in Oregon.
The region produced a record 23.2-million, 20-pound boxes of cherries in 2014. It likely will be closer to 20 million this year, B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, said at the trade association’s 72 annual Cherry Institute at the Yakima Convention Center, Jan. 16.
“Oregon was over 4 million boxes of cherries last year. It’s hard to say where it will be this year. I would expect 2.5 million,” Thurlby said.
Temperatures crashed as much as 60 degrees in just a couple of days in mid-November killing flower buds, spurs and even 1-, 2- and 3-year-old wood in cherry trees in The Dalles, Hood River and Milton-Freewater, said a panel of speakers led by Lynn Long, Oregon State University Extension tree fruit specialist at The Dalles.
Snow cover, not present farther north, contributed to the heat loss, Long said.
Severity of damage depends on winter, spring and early summer weather, said Gip Redman, a Wapato, Wash., grower and vice president of field services for Oregon Cherry Growers, the region’s largest briner in Salem.
“We know the damage is more severe than in a long time. I don’t think it will be quite as bad as 1955,” he said.
Severity should be pretty well known two to four weeks after spring bloom, Redman said. Fruitlets could form and drop off and cherries that do make it could be too small, he said.
A late February freeze in 1956 compounded a November 1955 freeze to damage many orchards, he said.
Bacterial cankers and other disease can set into trees from such a freeze and take years to overcome, Long said.
Cherry trees in the lower Yakima Valley suffered lighter damage, Redman said, urging growers there to sample buds and spurs.
Mike Omeg, a grower in The Dalles, said thoroughly sampling buds and spurs was more depressing than paying bills and that he will reduce pruning to try to have more crop to hopefully make picking worth the cost.
The institute luncheon speaker, Chris Balzer, associate director of Nielsen Perishables Group, Chicago, said an extra 45 million pounds of cherries sold between late July and early August in 2014 shows consumers are ready for more.
Health-conscious, middle-income to affluent couples, age 55 to 75, make up most of the 25 percent of consumers who buy cherries, he said. As consumer demand for fresh produce grows there are more touch points for cherries, he said.
For example, research shows consumer purchasing of ice cream, yogurt and mustard rises and falls with cherries, he said. So ads that feature cherries with ice cream or yogurt should resonate with consumers, he said. Mustard fits with hot dogs and hamburger grilling on the Fourth of July when shoppers usually buy cherries, he said. So ads tying cherries to barbecues with mustard are appropriate, he said.
Another example is using cherries at juice, yogurt and cereal or breakfast bars becoming more common in stores, he said.
Another issue, Balzar said, is driving demand to the 75 percent of consumers who don’t buy cherries. They are budget shoppers who view cherries as too expensive, he said. Smaller, more convenience packaging might reach them, he said.
James Michael, promotions director of Northwest Cherry Growers, said overall ad pricing was strong in 2014, averaging $3.52 per pound for dark, sweet cherries in stores in June, $2.95 in July and $3.80 in August.
Social media, in-store radio ads, print ads and in-hand demos of product, stressing cherries as low-level anti-inflamatory health protection help drive sales, he said.