Cherry marketers view late season opportunities

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Northwest cherries used to be sold out shortly after the Fourth of July. But weather and later varieties have turned late July and August into an important sales time.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — Northwest cherry marketers are looking for ways to improve late-season marketing and are viewing it as opportunity rather than challenge.

Years ago, Northwest cherries basically sold out on the Fourth of July or shortly thereafter, enjoying a market window ahead of and relatively free of competition from other fruits.

But the crop has virtually doubled in size and expanded into July and August with a growth of late varieties. In recent years, June volume has been suppressed by rains and in 2013 the July peak surpassed the June peak for the first time.

Cherry marketers are now embracing direct competition with grapes and other fruits in July and August that they once feared.

A panel of marketers talked about it at the North Central Washington Stone Fruit Day at the Wenatchee Convention Center, Jan. 21.

“July and early August is when our largest cherries are. It’s proven consumers want large cherries. It’s helping us become more well-known. I don’t look at it as a challenge but a huge opportunity to grab market away from blueberries, grapes and other stuff,” said Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee.

Tate Mathison, sales team leader at Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, said less certain supply leading up to the Fourth has put more pressure on the late season and led to quality inflation. But it’s the most plannable period with the highest quality, largest size and most consistent volume, he said. Smooth flow requires aligning picking, packing, promotions and sales, he said.

California’s 8-million-box cherry crop usually is harvested ahead of Washington’s 20-million-box crop. But Californians say they have the acreage to reach 11 million with northern district Sweethearts competing with Washington’s early Chelans, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, Yakima.

Findings show promotions are crucial to sales and store ads reached 14,635 in late July, an increase from past years, said James Michael, Northwest Cherry Growers vice president. The growth market is affluent, urban buyers, he said.

Large blueberries sell for higher prices so “we’re looking at 9-row (large) cherries and charging for it,” said Mac Riggan, vice president of Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan. Promotions need to engage as many kids as possible so they will be future buyers, he said.

The group agreed that new, electronic defect sorting will increase quality consistency and increase repeat sales.

“I’d like to see us increase our export demand,” Riggan said. “Anything to shrink domestic supply, increases demand.”

And in reference to the Fourth of July becoming more of a past tradition of peak sales, he said, “If I could wave a wand, I would want Congress to enact a new national holiday at the end of July.”