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Cheer for cherries

Dried cherries are starting to show up on restaurant menus in salads, pork dishes and other entrees. And cherry juice concentrate is no longer just an industrial ingredient, as consumers seek out the juice for its health benefits.

Tart cherries have a powerful story to tell, says Phil Korson, executive director of the Michigan Cherry Committee and president of the Cherry Marketing Institute.

“We want to maintain and expand our baking business — that’s an important market — but we also want to grow the industry in the super-fruit category. We are re-inventing tart cherries and creating new markets. We’ve known about their health benefits for some time, but didn’t have the vehicle or the money to get the message out.”

That is changing. At the urging of growers, the industry is dumping significant dollars into a comprehensive public relations campaign that started five years ago. The basic message is that tart cherries are good — and really good for you.

Key Points

Tart cherry industry looks to reinvent itself with new products and healthful message.

Public relations campaign targets the older population and media outlets.

Industry uses state and federal funds to aid market expansion, promotion and research.

Using $100,000 of grower checkoff dollars, and funds from the state and national boards, the industry hired consultant Jeff Manning — the man behind the “got milk” campaign — for promotion.

In addition, between $1 million and $1.5 million annually is invested in the public relations food company Weber Shandwick, out of Chicago, to cheer on cherries.

They have a lot to work with as knowledge about the health benefits of cherries increase. According to ongoing research, Montmorency tart cherries are a rich source of antioxidants, which can help fight cancer and heart disease.

In addition, there are beneficial anti-inflammatory compounds in Montmorency tart cherries that help relieve the pain of arthritis and gout. Emerging evidence suggests tart cherry juice concentrate contains natural melatonin, which helps maintain healthy, normal sleep cycles.

The public relations campaign reaches out to a general audience, but also targets the older population and media outlets, like Runners World and Fit magazines.

“In the last five years, cherry juice concentrate has branched from an industrial ingredient to a retail product for consumers. Ten years ago, we sold 10 [million] to 15 million pounds of dried cherries; today we’re close to 100 million pounds,” Korson says.

Adjusting to change

The need to find new homes for cherries is driven by flat cherry pie filling sales and changing consumer lifestyles. “When’s the last time you baked a cherry pie?” asks grower Ed Raak of South Haven, who has sold Michigan fruit for several different companies for 37 years.

The now retired Raak, who owns Dutch Farm Market, has always been a part of the tart cherry industry, although now to a lesser degree. “It used to be tart cherries were frozen in water, and then pie filling took over.

When that market went flat, the next big thing was frozen pies. Now, that’s flat. Grocery stores have changed, and fresh products have taken over year-round.”

Unlike sweet cherries, tart cherries have a very short shelf life and, for the most part, must be processed for sale. Cherry juice concentrate and dried cherries offer the newest products for consumers looking for healthy benefits.

The cherry industry is committed to more research. The Cherry Research Committee, a division of CMI, is requesting proposals for research grants on the health benefits of tart cherries. It has, for the last five years, awarded $300,000 each year.

Below is how the industry is leveraging state and federal funds to partner on market expansion, promotion and research:

Through the Federal Market Access Program, the industry receives $250,000 for promotion in foreign markets.

Under the Quality Samples Program, about $30,000 in annual federal funding helps the U.S. cherry industry provide samples to potential importers in emerging markets overseas. Focusing on industry and manufacturing, as opposed to end-use consumers, it permits potential customers to discover U.S. quality. “We target countries that can afford the product and can use it, such as Germany and the U.K.,” Korson says.

With a federal Emerging Market Grant, with the dollar amount yet to be disclosed, the industry will conduct a market research study in China. “China surpassed Japan in sales last year,” Korson adds.

Through a Specialty Block Grant administered through the state using federal dollars from the farm bill, organizations representing specialty crops can apply for grants to promote and grow their industries. Each year the cherry industry receives about $75,000 for programs geared toward such things as social media, training, volunteers and promotion, according to Korson.

Using federal, state and grower dollars, about $150,000 to $160,000 a year is invested in production research. “That includes anything that affects the grower, such as cherry leaf spot and insects.”

Korson says cherry growers make up an industry of entrepreneurs looking to invent new products. But the industry lacks the backing of a national brand name, like Welch’s or Ocean Spray, which could blast the tart cherry message globally. However, Coloma Frozen Fruits is targeting the Southern market, Korson says, and King Orchards is also a big promoter of tart cherries and has had good success in marketing to the U.K.

This article published in the August, 2011 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.