Stemilt eyes cherry juice option

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Part of the Stemilt Growers Inc. operation in Olds Station on the northern edge of Wenatchee, Wash., is shown on March 16, 2010. Stemilt has received a USDA Rural Development grant to explore retail sales of cherry juice.

World's largest cherry packer hopes to make cherry juice a mainstream item

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Stemilt Growers Inc. of Wenatchee is considering producing cherry juice for retail sales.

Stemilt, the world's largest sweet cherry packer with orchards in Washington and California, received a $50,000 value added producer grant Aug. 2 from USDA Rural Development Washington State Director Mario Villanueva.

The grant pays one-fourth of the project cost of determining if Stemilt can produce "a healthy drink out of cherry juice that tastes good and doesn't come off medicinal in taste," said Philip Eggman, a USDA Rural Development spokesman in Olympia.

Stemilt Marketing Director Roger Pepperl had little comment. He said the project will take about 11 months. "It's a study on whether it's a potential business opportunity for us. It's no news right now," he said.

Pacific Northwest cherry packers sell cull and small cherries to processors for brine to make maraschino cherries. Some cherries are frozen, canned or juiced.

Cherry juice is very limited in production.

It's not even enough to make it on the USDA's list of tree fruit juice consumption, said Desmond O'Rourke, a retired Washington State University agricultural economist and private consultant.

U.S. consumption of tree fruit juices was 7.63 gallons per capita in 2007-2008, with orange juice leading at 3.81 gallons per capita, apple following at 2.26 gallons and grape juice the next largest at .55 gallons, O'Rourke said.

High in antioxidants, cherry juice is sold in health food stores and online as a health product but has never become big commercially because of fluctuating supply, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima.

Anywhere from 5 to 40 percent of the Northwest cherry crop goes for processing each season, depending on the amount of weather damage, Thurlby said.

Counting on more stable supply from larger crops in the future, Stemilt is considering juice, he said. "It's a smart thing to do," he said.

The grant likely will be spent determining whether to go for a straight cherry juice or blended with other fruits and what market to target, Thurlby said.

"A company the size of Stemilt and integrated like Stemilt probably could set aside a minimum amount of cherries each year for juicing, but like all processed foods, returns tend to be low," O'Rourke said.

Pomegranate juice has been moved from novelty to greater volume grocery story sales by a California company. It may be that Stemilt is looking at that as a model, he said.

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