By MITCH LIES
PORTLAND -- An increase in dried tart cherry exports and an expanding concentrate market bode well for a U.S. tart cherry industry that has struggled with low prices and relatively static acreage for several years, according to an industry researcher.
"We're running into some new ideas and possibly seeing how the industry may change, perhaps dramatically, in the next 10 to 15 years," Michigan State University horticulture professor Greg Lang said Jan. 29 at the Northwest Agricultural Show in Portland.
Lang said that traditional uses of tart cherries, such as pie-filling uses, have declined over the past 15 years, but new uses are more than filling the void.
Driven in part by promotions from the Michigan-based Cherry Marketing Institute, cherry concentrate sales have increased steadily since 2006, he said.
"The health benefits of cherries have been touted and get a lot of play," Lang said.
Also, he said, exports of dried tart cherries to Germany, Israel and other countries have grown dramatically in the last six years.
"The dried tart cherry market continues to grow," he said. "It continues to be one of our most positive markets."
The U.S. tart cherry industry, comprising about 36,000 bearing acres, has struggled at times over the past 15 years with low prices brought on by high production.
"It has been a tough industry," said Lee Schrepel, executive vice president of Fruithill, a tart cherry and sweet cherry producer and processor in Yamhill, Ore.
Prices have fluctuated between 19 cents a pound, which growers received in 2006 and 2009, and 44 cents a pound, the price paid growers in 2002.
Depressed prices tend to linger for at least two years, Lang said.
"You get a recurring effect," Lang said. "When you have that high crop, you have a lot more in storage going into the next year, and so that price tends to stay depressed until you get supplies and carryover back into balance," he said.
Oregon, with 650 acres in production, produces about 1 percent of the U.S. supply of tart cherries. Washington, with 4,000 acres in production, produces 5.5 percent of the U.S. supply. Michigan, with 27,400 acres, produces 75 percent of the nation's tart cherries.
The U.S. produces about 10 percent of the world supply of tart cherries, ranking fifth in international production behind Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Turkey.
Poland and Turkey are the United States' major competitors in tart cherry export markets, Lang said.