Stemilt Growers' Brianna Shales Discusses Washington Cherry Market
WENATCHEE, WA - The Washington cherry season is underway, bringing big juicy fruit to retailers across North America. One of the companies leading the West Coast cherry charge this season is Stemilt Growers, which got its official start in California last month and is kicking off harvest in the Columbia Basin region of Washington this week.
Communications Manager Brianna Shales joined me as the state’s picking gets underway to share the company’s excitement for the season and what we can look forward to as we look ahead. Stemilt will begin with the Chelan variety before quickly moving into Bing volume. The company’s early fruit primarily comes from modern orchards in Mattawa, Washington.
“Here at Stemilt, we believe it’s important to focus on quality when it comes to cherries. People who buy cherries are buying on impulse a majority of the time, and are from higher income households,” she shares. “It’s not a planned purchase, but when they look inviting and are displayed in a prominent location, they will make it into shopping carts. Merchandising big-sized cherries is a real win because cherry size is directly related to its flavor and sugars.”
Stemilt believes pricing this season, is going to be in line where the grower and retailer will benefit. Cherries are a big contributor to the produce department, about 3.5 percent, despite being a seasonal item, Brianna adds. This year, retailers will have more selling weeks to promote a large crop out of Washington. And as the Stemilt team shares, as long as they focus on quality first and promote at the key intervals, they will find success.
“We will be starting the season with both organic and conventional cherries,” Brianna shares. “Stemilt’s cherry program is strong with five different SKUs for retailers to promote. These include organic dark-sweet, organic Rainier, dark-sweet, Rainier, and of course, our signature variety, Skylar Rae®.”
Stemilt is a long-time grower of organics with our Artisan Organics program dating back to 1989. Organic cherries will be very promotable all July as volumes reach their peak.
Right out of the gates on the dark-sweet side, Stemilt will pick Chelans first with Bing following seven to ten days after. Stemilt expects to see smaller sizing on Chelans industry-wide, but that will correct itself in the Bing crop.
“Stemilt is flavor-driven and always has been. This means we take extra measures to ensure that our fruit sizes well and has the firmness and dessert flavors that help drive shoppers to purchase cherries, and then repeat that purchase,” Brianna notes. “Skylar Rae is an exclusive cherry brand at Stemilt and we will have increased volumes of this variety in 2017. We are very excited about this fruit because of its beautiful bi-color and unique position as the ‘third SKU’ in the cherry category.”
Skylar Rae was given its own PLU number last year because it has unique genetics, she adds, sharing that Skylar Rae is one of the firmest and sweetest cherries around, and these two things usually don’t go together in cherries.
“We are very excited about the dessert eating experience it will offer shoppers this year and beyond,” Brianna says.
For Rainiers, Stemilt will start with the Royal variety, which will pick up in volume quickly. This year, supplies are going to align well with National Rainier Cherry Day on July 11th, and the industry will see July as the prime month to promote Rainiers. Dark-sweet cherries will also be promotable in July with August promotions a must to account for later crop timing this year when compared to last.
Brianna adds that demand is strong following a successful season in California. The later start to the crop means that retailers can’t go off last year’s plan, though, she warns, which was abnormally early timing as there was a lack of compression in the season so far—an element to timing that the industry has seen in the past few years.
“There will be more selling weeks for cherries and great volumes for promotion in July and August,” she says.
“Keeping quality high and focusing on large-sizes, firmness, and dessert flavors is the key way to win repeat sales with cherry shoppers and that’s what Stemilt focuses its horticultural program around.”
In addition, Stemilt’s Kyle’s Pick™ program in July is a great way to differentiate cherries as a premium offering because cherries in that pack must meet standards for type of variety, size, firmness and flavor.
“Stemilt also has one of the longest cherry seasons in the industry, and because of this year’s late start to harvest, we will harvest cherries daily now through Labor Day. Our high-altitude orchards produce the special cherries for our A Half Mile Closer the Moon™ program and will wrap up our season from mid-August through early September with great tasting Sweetheart, Skeena, and Staccato® cherries,” Brianna shares.
It is going to be cherry fever this year for consumers, with retailers promoting the in-demand category throughout the summer season. And if you are Stemilt… into the fall.