Stemilt looks for June start, larger fruit for NW cherries

stemilt Expecting cherry volumes in the Northwest to be less than those of 2019, Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, WA, is also looking for “exceptionally large” fruit as the regional harvest and shipping kick off in early June.

The company’s early cherries out of California were met by strong demand, according to Stemilt Growers Senior Marketing Manager Brianna Shales, and she said July will be the peak month for Washington State. She noted the end of the California crop will line up well with the early June start in Washington.

Looking at promotions for 2020, Shales said that with the changes in retail due to COVID-19, Stemilt is using more digital in its efforts to reach consumers with the cherry message.

“Cherries are one of the true seasonal items that remain in produce, and a huge dollar generator to the produce department,” she said. “Early signs show strong demand for cherries despite a drastic change in shopping patterns. We haven’t modified promotions, but are turning to digital avenues – like geo-targeted social media ads – to remind consumers that cherries are in season and a superfruit.”

She continued, “Cherries are an impulse purchase and with fewer shopping trips being made by most households right now, we want to make sure people know that cherries are back in season and ready to fill that healthy indulgence.”

Just a couple of weeks away from the NW start date, Shales said industry members were assessing what the area’s cherry production might be. “We are still in the process of learning this,” she said of volume. “But we do know that cherry volumes in the NW are looking to be less than last year. This is due to a combination of factors in the industry, including a late frost.”

That lighter crop, Shales said, “means that cherries will be exceptionally large! The different growing locales in Washington State appear to have great spread between harvest timings, which will make for more selling weeks at retail. July will be the big volume/promotion month for cherries, with good supplies of Stemilt’s specialty ‘A Half Mile Closer to the Moon®’ cherries to carry us through the season in mid-August to early September.”

Stemilt Growers is known for its numerous varieties of cherries, including Rainiers. Shales said, “Rainiers will be available near the start of the season, in early-mid June and last through July, with July 11’s “National Rainier Cherry Day” always being a key promotion time for Rainiers. On the dark-sweet side, we kick off the season with Chelan and then move into varieties like Santina, Bing and Sweetheart.”

Skeena, she said, “is our big July cherry, and we lead the industry in this superior quality cherry. We have Skylar Rae® from mid-June to mid-July. In August we wrap the season with Skeena, Staccato®, and new test varieties that combine with our high-altitude growing sites to extend the season even later.”

New plantings have come into production in recent years, and Shales said most of the varieties fall into the July/August crop. Some of the newer plantings with their July and August fruit are what Shales called “modernizing orchards.” And she said Kyle Mathison (the man behind Moon cherries) “continues to plant further up his Amigos orchard site that sits at 2,640 feet above sea level and higher. He keeps growing cherries higher up to extend the season into late August and early September.”

Mathison also has grown the organic cherry category, she said.

“Organic cherries are incredibly difficult to grow, but we have growers like Kyle who have the growing site, conditions and passion to specialize in it. Though they are a small part of the overall volume, there are opportunities to promote organic cherries in July, and we grow one of the best varieties organically – the Skeena. It’s a great cherry to impress organic shoppers with.”

The new season will not see a brand new variety, but Shales said the Skylar Rae® is the company’s “signature variety.” She said, “This cherry is the sweetest and firmest one out there and the third SKU for the category. It’s a great item to expand cherry displays with during the mid-June to mid-July timeframe because it’s fantastic and it delivers a high ring at retail. We also expect great supplies of Kyle’s Pick® cherries in July. This is our premium pack of cherries where we reserve select, top varieties, the largest sizes, and firmness/sugar standards. This is a great way for retailers to differentiate their cherries on quality during the peak cherry promotion time.”

At the Wenatchee facility a new “Ultimate” cherry line was unveiled in 2019, and Shales said Stemilt is “looking forward to having this high-capacity line again this year.” She said, “All of our cherries are packed on optic lines, and the Ultimate line features the latest Unitec Cherry Vision software for precision in packing. This line also has automatic packaging capabilities to pack cherries efficiently. Finally, we have an automated distribution center (called the Fresh Cube) that allows us to keep cherries at precise shipping temperatures and load trucks quickly. This is a huge asset when it comes to the perishable nature of cherries and getting them from farm-to-store quickly.”

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