Early start for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers WA stone fruit

It’s “game on!” for stone fruit in the Pacific Northwest, much to the delight of consumers, according to Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers.

Thanks to a mild winter and spring, fruit has come on a week to 10 days earlier than normal this year, and Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, with both conventional and organic tree-ripened fruit in good supplies, will ship its first loads of organic apricots June 1.

The certified apricots will ship through July 15, and conventional cots will ship June 10 through July 20, said OSRG Marketing Director Scott Marboe.

He noted that as California is finishing its apricot season early, demand is anticipated to be excellent for Washington fruit

GourmetApricotpouchcarton Marboe said the small, sweet, snack-perfect apricots are of excellent quality, noting, “Volume and sizing of the conventional cots will be similar to last season, but our organic volume will be up slightly this season, mostly due to new acreage of Robadas coming on line.”

The entire OSRG stone fruit program was expanded in 2014, with organic apricots, peaches, nectarines and three varieties of pluots comprising nearly 30 percent of the total volume, Marboe said.

“For the past several seasons, we have been working to increase our organic volume in all categories,” said National Sales Representative Bruce Turner.  “Consumer demand in organic and natural continues to grow, and our customers demand it. We plan to continue adding more organics to our manifest every year.”

At the same time it increases its stone fruit volume, OSRG is also adding to its pack options, with the late-season Gourmet Apricots packed in the popular one-pound pouch.

Turner said the late-season fruit are varieties that originated in New Zealand, and their season starts July 25 and runs about six weeks.

Also notable in the apricot category is the laCrème variety, which  is white-fleshed rather than orange. It is packed in the 12/1-pound clamshell, and Turner said, “They’re just too good not to try.”

Consumers can expect to see Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers’ juicy and delectable organic peaches on shelves June 25, and they will be available through Sept. 1. Conventional peaches will start shipping Aug. 1, and they will run through Sept. 15, finishing somewhat earlier than normal as well. Marboe said the crop is excellent again in 2015.

“The volume and sizing on conventional peaches is similar to last season,” he said. “Our organics will be off just slightly as acreage is grafted to newer white-flesh varieties.”

Oneonta Starr Ranch Grower’s smooth-skinned, juicy nectarines are down somewhat in volume this year and will also start early. Organics will ship June 25 through Sept. 1, and conventionals will start Aug. 1 and ship through mid-September. Demand in both categories is expected to be very strong, Turner said.

Pluots, the “new kid” on the stone fruit block, will start with organics about Aug. 25 and finish three weeks later. The Robada, newest in the line-up, “just melts in your mouth,” according to grower Scott Kehl.

Volatile Western vegetable market might be changing again

With some warmer weather in the forecast as California steamed toward early June, vegetable supplies might start to pick up, which could mean more predictability in the marketplace.

Though that could be the case, some are not so quick to concede that, as predictability has been the enemy for the past few months.

Mark McBride, who sits on the sales desk for Coastline in Salinas, CA, and is a longtime veteran in the Western vegetable industry, told The Produce News May 27 that he is not ready to assume that normal weather and production patterns will prevail.

A warm, dry winter has been followed by a strange spring, which has seen a month of days well below normal in temperature.

In fact, the Salinas, CA, area suffered through a cold Memorial Day weekend in late May that typically signals the beginning of summer. If that weekend is a harbinger of things to come, a cold summer could be in the future.

McBride said the warm early spring brought many crops on quicker than usual and caused most grower-shippers to be harvesting one to two weeks ahead of schedule. A correction was sure to come, and it arrived in early May as supplies dwindled when the harvest transitioned to the coastal valleys of California. Hot markets have been the order of the day through most of May.

Even as the month is winding down, cauliflower is selling for about $25-32 per carton, while broccoli is in the low $20s, accompanied by several leaf items. In the waning days of May, both Iceberg and Romaine lettuce saw a strengthening in the market to the low teens.

McBride said all of the upcoming acreage in Salinas has been planted with seeds bred for a warming spring trend. That hasn’t occurred.

“I can’t predict how those plants are going to respond to this weather,” he said.

And he certainly isn’t willing to predict that California will return to a normal weather pattern after evading that scenario for the past six months.

“We had a winter that was like spring and a spring that was like winter,” he quipped. “Who knows what the summer will bring?”

Tim Tomasello of West Produce Inc. in Salinas, CA, was expecting a bit more predictability in the upcoming weeks. He said May 27 that warmer weather was predicted for the upcoming weekend for California’s Salinas Valley, and he expected supplies to increase and prices to come down. He said demand has not been overwhelming and so if the better weather does lead to an expected increase in production, the supply-and-demand curve should return to a more normal level. He said the production should take some time to increase, but the upcoming fields do look good and healthy and full of product.

“The fields are definitely looking better,” he noted.

Tomasello added that homegrown deals in New Jersey and elsewhere were beginning to yield supplies, which would also have a downward impact on market prices for Western vegetables in the next several weeks.

FDA releases inspection report on Listeria finding at Bidart Bros. packing plant

WASHINGTON — The Food & Drug Administration has released the 483 inspection report on the Bidart Bros. apple packing plant, where inspectors found Listeria monocytogenes on food contact surfaces, linking the facility to a Listeria outbreak tied to its caramel apples

Health officials believe the company’s apples caused at least 35 people to become infected with the pathogen that resulted in 34 hospitalizations and seven deaths.

In January, Bakersfield, CA-based Bidart Bros. recalled Granny Smith and Gala apples after environmental testing revealed the Listeria contamination at the apple-packing facility. FDA linked the environmental Listeria isolates to the outbreak strains.

Three other companies that carried the caramel apples issued recalls as well, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention announced that the outbreak, which started in October 2014, was over on Feb. 12.

On May 27, FDA released the 483 inspection report with details on the findings from the 110 environmental swabs collected on Dec. 23, 2014, during a four-day inspection of the Shafter, CA, packing facility. The samples were taken from food and non-food contact surfaces in the packaging area, common cold storage and bins stored outside.

FDA’s report said seven subsamples confirmed positive for Listeria were collected from the following areas: black polishing brush, red drying blushes, auto line machinery, main packing line drain between the north and sound flumes and the inside area of a non-painted Bidart wooden bin.

Six of the sites were direct food-contact surfaces, FDA said.

FDA investigators also “observed direct food-contact areas of packaging equipment, used during the 2014 apple season, constructed and/or maintained in a manner so that they cannot be properly cleaned and sanitized.”

In a Jan. 9 statement, Bidart Bros. said it had “met the USDA criteria for good agricultural practices and good handling practices in its apple plant. Yet, as a result of these latest findings, Bidart Bros. is reviewing all of their procedures to ensure that the product that leaves the facilities is safe.”

Naturipe to increase market share in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia

Naturipe Farms partner Munger Farms has announced the signing of a joint venture agreement with Golden Eagle Farm Group, owned by the Aquilini family in Vancouver, BC. The Aquilini family has several diverse farming operations and is a significant grower of blueberries in British Columbia and Washington state.

“This addition will complement our current production from Naturipe Farms partner MBG Marketing’s, premier grower base in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon,” Brian Bocock, vice president of product management for Naturipe Farms, said in a press release.

Headquartered in Salinas CA, Naturipe Farms is grower-owned by Munger Farms, MBG Marketing, Hortifrut and Naturipe Berry Growers.

“This significantly boosts our market share in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, allowing us to provide domestic and international customers a consistent supply of premium blueberries from this region,” Bocock added.

“The joint venture with the Aquilini family will increase our acreage by 4,000,” David Munger, co-chief executive officer of Munger Farms, added in the press release. “The Canadian blueberry fields are in full production and the Washington operations will start limited production in 2016. The decision to expand in this region reflects our confidence in the unique Naturipe Farms grower-owned business model, our market leadership, and the synergies amongst the Naturipe grower-owners which enable us to fulfill the growing consumer demand for premium blueberries.”

Keys to boosting cherry sales

Cherry professionals in the Pacific Northwest talked with The Produce News about category management insights that can translate to increased fruit sales at retail.

James Michael, vice president of marketing-North America for Washington State Fruit Commission/Northwest Cherry Growers, said he hopes to see steady momentum as cherries hit retail shelves. “That’s the key in atypical seasons like this. It requires a change-up to the year-over-year weekly program,” he told The Produce News.RetailAccording to Northwest Cherry Growers, placement of secondary cherry displays outside the produce department can drive incremental sales. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Marketing International) “But the important part for everyone to recognize is that they get one shot each year at the dollars that Northwest cherries can bring to their departments. If they don’t push for back-to-back promotions, the season will be over and their opportunity for increased and repeat purchases will be lost.”

He said cherries remain the top dollar-per-square-foot item in July, and are the number two item in June. “According to Nielsen, a cherry buyer spends an average of 28 percent more on cherries than when they buy grapes,” he said. “That’s typically where cherry buyers migrate from during the Northwest cherry season.”

According to Michael, Nielsen studies also show “that what spurs late-season consumers more than a price drop is a call out of the ‘last chance to buy.’”

Michael said placement of secondary displays outside the produce department, especially at cash registers and meal-to-go sections, can boost sales.

Steve Lutz, vice president of marketing for Columbia Marketing International, fleshed out the importance of this strategy. “Consumer research has shown that cherries are one of the highest impulse purchase items in the produce department,” he commented. “Cherries tend to not be on consumers’ minds when they get to the store. But purchases are triggered when they see the product displays in the supermarket. This is exactly why secondary displays are so powerful for driving cherry performance. Retail studies conducted by the Northwest Cherry Growers found that secondary displays can drive as much as a 30 percent increase in sales, simply because more displays mean more opportunities for consumers to encounter cherries in the store, even on a quick trip to just pick up a few items.”

According to Lutz, CMI has had strong success with its Nature’s Candy Orchard View 3D cherry shipper. “It ships with fruit and can be placed anywhere in the store where a retailer has high traffic and wants to drive incremental sales,” he explained. “It’s really been a terrific addition.”

Roger Pepperl, director of marketing for Stemilt Growers LLC, provided additional reinforcement for this strategy. “Stemilt also supports retailers with a number of merchandising materials, including signage and high-graphic display bins that can be used to promote Rainier or dark-sweet cherries during the key cherry weeks in a secondary location or grand display,” he said. “Cherries are an impulse item and an important one to the produce department in the summer. Featuring them front-and-center and in a big way and promoting size and flavor is the best way to ensure shoppers pick them up.”

Howard Nager, vice president/marketing for Domex Superfresh Growers, said the snapshot of data for cherry sales and impact shows how strong the category is. Citing data compiled by IRI/FreshLook Marketing, Nager said the total U.S. cherry category sales for 2014 were nearly $766 million. Of this total, dark sweet sales represented 92 percent of the dollar share of the category at $702 million. Rainiers contributed 8 percent or $64 million of cherry category dollars.

From June through August, he said, cherries contributed nearly 8 percent of fruit category dollars.

Data reveal that organic cherries continue to show strong growth trends. The data provided by Nager state that organics contributed $11.3 million and 2.2 million pounds to the cherry category in 2014, representing a 64 percent increase in dollars and a 70 percent increase in volume when compared to 2013.