New bags help cherry sales

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Irma Estrada packs stand-up bags of cherries into a box at McDougall & Sons, Wenatchee, Wash., on July 17. Such gusseted bags with flat bottoms display better, marketers say.

YAKIMA, Wash. — More Pacific Northwest sweet cherry packers likely will use gusseted plastic bags next season because they display better, says B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers.

While supply was 37 percent short, a major U.S. retailer increased sales volume 20 percent in 2013 by using the new bags prominently displayed at the front of stores, Thurlby said at the trade association’s annual Cherry Institute at the Yakima Convention Center, Jan. 10.

The transparent, 2-pound bags have flat bottoms so they stand upright and make cherries more visible to the consumer’s eye, Thurlby said.

“Last year was the first big year of them for cherries and I think more will be used this year,” he said.

With a smaller 14.2-million, 20-pound box crop last season, prices stayed high, averaging $3.99 to $4.99 per pound, Thurlby said.

“A fear is that retailers will see the success of that and want to keep prices high but they will need to go lower if we have more volume this year,” he said.

Barring weather damage, the 2014 crop should be about 20 million boxes and prices need to be in the $2.79 to $2.99 range to keep that kind of volume moving, he said.

A 14-million-box crop was large prior to 2009 when 20 million was reached. The record is 22.9 million boxes in 2012.

The 2013 crop looked promising for good early maturity with the hottest weather during the first two weeks of May since 1992, Thurlby said. But it was slowed by the coldest last two weeks of May since 1991 and then 17 rains that cut 4 million to 5 million boxes worth of volume, he said. Still, grower returns were generally positive, he said.

Daily peak volume usually occurs in June but this past season it was July 24 at 429,000 boxes, he said.

The new bags are exciting but so are new high-tech cherry sorting lines being installed by many packers, Thurlby said. Better sorting should improve quality and help the industry “navigate” large crops while promoting the health and convenience of cherries, he said.

With the expansion to about 60,000 acres of Northwest cherries, 20-million-box crops are the new norm, but U.S. and world population is sufficient to absorb them, he said.

Canada represents 37.5 percent of Northwest cherry exports, China 24.6 percent, South Korea 11.7 and Taiwan 8.8, said Keith Hu, Northwest Cherry Growers’ international program director. China, Korea and Australia are the biggest export growth markets, he said.

“The United Kingdom is most challenging for us. Success there depends on how European cherries are doing and our window is short,” Hu said.

Stefano Musacchi, physiologist at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, indicated there’s opportunity in Europe because that region’s demand is so high that it imports cherries despite being the world’s leading producer at 38 percent of the sweet cherries and 67 percent of tart cherries. World sweet cherry production is more than 2.2 million tons and increasing, he said.

Short videos touting the health benefits of cherries that consumers can pull up on their smart phones while shopping are just as important in domestic promotions as ad time on the electronic billboard in New York’s Times Square, said James Michael, Northwest Cherry Growers’ domestic promotions director.

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