Good Fruit Grower

May 15

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30 MAY 15, 2015 GOOD FRUIT GROWER T he Oregon Cherry Growers cooperative performs a major service for Pacific Northwest cherry growers, even those who aren't members. About half of the offl ine Northwest cherries—those that don't make the grade for the fresh market—are processed by the Oregon coop- erative and return some value to growers. The cooperative packs fresh cherries under a partnership with a Washington State packing company and produces a variety of processed cherry products in Oregon facilities in Salem and The Dalles. All cherries—no matter the size, shape, or vari- ety—have value, even the pits, which are returned to orchards to keep down dust. "We provide a tremendous service for packing houses in Washington by providing a home for the cull fruit that would otherwise be disposed of," said Tim Ramsey, president and chief executive of the Salem-based Oregon Cherry Growers. "Even ugly fruit can be made into a bit or piece of a dried, brined, or frozen cherry, but it takes a lot of vigorous sorting on our part." The cooperative can use any cherry variety for its products, although some are more preferred depending on the product use. For example, cocktail maraschino cherries need a stem, so the variety's stem retention is important. "That's the strength of the cooperative. We can always provide a home for our members' fruit and they share in the co-op's profi ts," he said. "If a member can get it off of the tree, we can help cover the growing and harvesting costs, and we'll make something out of it." He used last year's record crop of 23 million 20-pound boxes as an example of Oregon Cherry Growers value to the cherry industry. Rain at the end of the season could have spelled disaster for a particular grower, but the cooperative was able to take a couple thousand tons of the grower's fruit and do something with it so that it wasn't a total loss. By diverting it to processing, the grower was able to get the fruit off the trees and cover his costs. More fruit New products and sales growth from individu- ally quick frozen (IQF) cherries and dried fruit could open doors for use of even more off-line fruit. IQF cherries are basically frozen cherries that didn't go to the fresh market, Ramsey explained. They have the same quality characteristics as fresh and must have good size and high quality. "We're aggressively looking for more fruit for our processed side," he said. "To grow the IQF market, we need dedicated acreage." Growers in The Dalles typically produce fresh market cherries, while members in Willamette Valley grow more cherries for processing. Strong hazelnut prices in recent years have encouraged some growers in Willamette Valley to replace Royal Ann orchards with hazelnuts. "Orchard-run, hand-picked, high-quality, stemmed cocktail cherries are in short supply," Ramsey said. Growing for the processed market can be profi table if the orchard is planted to a high-den- sity system suited to mechanical harvesting. Picking costs for mechanical harvest are around 10 cents per pound compared to 30 cents for hand-picked cherries. Because terrain in The Dalles is not con- ducive to mechanically harvested cherries, most of the orchards produce cherries for the fresh market. "With the market moving away from brining and towards IQF cherries, we are seeing growers plant specifi cally for IQF as a way to diversify their port- folio," Ramsey said. Processed cherries provide a steady pricing structure. The cooperative has a variety and use database going back 30 years that includes processing attri- butes of all varieties. "We can tell you what the highest yielding IQF variety is or what variety does well for brining. For instance, we know that Lapins makes a beautiful IQF cherry." Perimeter program He noted that Oregon Cherry Growers has implemented a new orchard perimeter program to encourage fresh market growers to pick the border or perimeter rows separately for processing. The outside rows often have slightly damaged fruit from wind or sunburn. The cooperative will pay the brine price of 50 cents a pound compared to the cull price of 12 cents a pound for the fruit. Keeping the fruit separate can improve a grower's pool quality and also keep crews busy before the entire block is ready for picking. Last year, the co-op membership grew by about 15 percent, according to Ramsey. "We're looking for new members. There are no requirements that members must be from Oregon, although we've yet to sign a Washington grower." With new optical sorting technology now in place at the cooperative's Wapato, Washington, packing facility, he hopes there will be more incentive for Washington growers. "When you look at our programs of IQF and other ways to use all of the fruit, that could inspire Washington growers to become members," he said. • without corn syrup and free of sulfi tes and preservatives. Royal Harvest products use Fair Trade, non-genetically modifi ed cane sugar, and natural colors and fl avors to satisfy globally conscious buyers like Ben and Jerry's. The use of natural colors and non-GMO sugar opened up new markets in places like Whole Foods. The cooperative recently launched "The Ultimate Ingredient Fruit," a prod- uct line that includes dried cherries, rasp- berries, wild and cultivated blueberries, and strawberries and other fruits in the near future. The fruits are dried to specifi c moisture levels that were determined after interviews with chefs and product testing to be optimum for baked goods like scones, muffi ns, bars, and cakes. The co-op's dried blueberry products have been very popular in export markets, like Japan. Ramsey says that while sales of the dried ingredients and frozen products are growing, helped by health and nutrition trends, trying to energize sales of maraschino-type cherries has been more challenging. But he thinks he has a winner with the co-op's newly developed value-added package for maraschinos. Maraschino cherries have been around a long time, with little innovation to the product category. Maraschino cherries, which date back several cen- turies to the marasca cherry variety of Croatia, were originally brined in alcohol and considered a delicacy for European aristocrats. For decades, bartenders and bakers have scooped the bright red fruit out of gallon jars to top drinks, sundaes, and desserts, says Ramsey, who recalled doing the same thing when he was a bartender during his college days. But things are different now with food safety concerns. Oregon Cherry Growers aims to transform that scooping practice with new portion-controlled pouch packages that are shelf-stable and can be kept at ambient temperatures before opening. Another advantage will be reduced freight and storage space. The cooperative spent 18 months developing a proprietary method of pack- aging maraschino-style cherries for food service and retail sales. The consumer line of packages is designed for a clip strip and can be hung in the grocery store near the ice cream condiments and liquor. "Maraschinos are impulse buys. But they are hard to fi nd in a grocery store because everyone puts them in a different location," he said. "With smaller portion sizes, you can use them up in a weekend and won't have them sitting in your refrigerator for years." He admitted to having the same jar in his refrigerator from when he started with the cooperative two years ago. • OREGON CHERRY GROWERS 2UHJRQ&KHUU\*URZHUVSURFHVVHVDERXWKDOIRIWKHFXOORURI½LQHFKHUULHVIURP1RUWKZHVWSDFNLQJKRXVHVLQWRYDOXHDGGHG products like maraschino cherries or cherries for ice cream. Oregon cooperative provides a home for offl ine cherries. by Melissa Hansen All cherries have VALUE TJ MULLINAX/GOOD FRUIT GROWER Japan is a strong export market for wild blueberries dried and processed by Oregon Cherry Growers.

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