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    Stone Fruit Forecast

    Quality crops, new varieties and value-added introductions create fresh excitement in the category.

    By Jennifer Strailey

    Historically, stone fruits have played a more subdued role in the ever-evolving and increasingly dynamic produce department. Sure customers look forward to cherry season, fresh peaches, nectarines and plums, but the selection has been somewhat predictable—until now.

    New value-added products, kid-friendly packaging, an emphasis on local, and specialty varieties are creating a juicy story for stone fruits in 2015.

    Take Woot Froot by Fresh Fruit Cuts, for example. It’s a story more than six years in the making, but the Fresno, Calif.-based company has succeeded in being the first to bring fresh-cut peaches and nectarines to market.

    “The biggest challenge is creating a consistent flavor and texture throughout the season and maintaining shelf life,” says Kim Gaarde, president of Woot Froot. “The thing that makes cut peaches and nectarines different from other sliced fruit is the varietal differences. Peach and nectarine varieties change every single week of the growing season. Each variety has different nuances that make its taste, texture or shelf life different.”

    While in fresh produce, this simply translates to different harvest times, in the world of fresh-cut, these nuances present a challenge. “We spent six-plus years testing over 400 varieties of peaches and nectarines under different conditions to see what would work,” notes Gaarde, who rolled out Woot Froot nationally in the spring of 2014. The value-added fruit has experienced steady sales growth since its launch. It seems that every fruit can benefit from the burgeoning fresh-cut, value-added trend. According to the Q3 2014 edition of the “FreshFacts on Retail” report from the United Fresh Produce Association, in Washington, D.C., the value-added fruit category posted average weekly dollar and volume sales growth of 10.5 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively.

    The recent FreshFacts report, produced in partnership with the Nielsen Perishables Group and sponsored by Del Monte Fresh Produce, also noted the demand for value-added convenience produce items. Multiple categories, from mixed melons to fresh-cut fruits, experienced double-digit growth.

    With Woot Froot blazing the trail, now is the time for stone fruit suppliers and retailers to capture a slice of the value-added phenomenon.

    “Stone fruit has actually seen declining consumption over the years, because there has not been a lot of innovation in the category,” admits Gaarde, who adds that with a new product like Woot Froot, POS is helpful in drawing attention.

    “Because the product is new and consumers aren’t familiar with it, they also don’t know to look for it,” she says. “If the retailer has the ability to do a free-standing refrigerated or iced unit near checkout or on the floor of the produce department, this may also help spur trial and impulse purchases.”

    Local Flavor

    Peaches are a big deal in South Carolina, the second-largest producer of peaches in the nation (California is No. 1). The peach industry in South Carolina grosses approximately $50 million annually. So, in a state that knows its fuzzy-skinned stone fruit, it’s not surprising that local is a top trend.

    “Obviously, the local trend is huge,” affirms Matt Cornwell, of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, in Columbia. “We see a high demand for South Carolina peaches not only in South Carolina, but in neighboring states as well.”

    The state also provides signage free of charge to retailers eager to promote the Certified S.C. Grown program. “This allows consumers to quickly identify local products,” says Cornwell. “Since many of our growers ship early and late varieties to northern and Midwest markets, it’s also important for those retailers to focus on quality displays and signage. Many consumers in those markets look forward to peaches coming from South Carolina as early as late May.”

    To the north, local is equally cherished. “The ‘buy local’ food movement is a perfect match for North Carolina peaches,” says Dexter Hill, marketing specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in Kinston. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and are also very health-conscious. Peaches are a good source of vitamin A, and one medium peach contains about 40 calories and has 0 grams of fat.”

    North Carolina peaches are tree-ripened and sold immediately on the fresh market, local and regional farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and in some local grocery store chains, explains Hill, adding that “tree-ripened” means that the peaches are left on the tree longer and the sugar content is at its maximum before the fruit is harvested.

    A Plum of a Different Color

    Color is one of the easiest ways to create visual excitement. New varieties of stone fruits are adding interest and opportunities at retail, according to Evan Myers, executive director, South American imports for The Oppenheimer Group, familiarly known as “Oppy,” in Coquitlam, British Columbia.

    “We are particularly excited about the lemon plum from Chile,” Myers says. “We anticipate record volumes this season. With their bright-yellow color and distinctive teardrop shape, lemon plums display beautifully.” These sweet plums with a slight citrus flavor have a tender skin that blushes as they ripen, and a lush amber flesh — a unique plum, with the added allure of limited availability.

    In late April, Oppy plans to bring to market more of the new Callisto plum, a deep-red variety with golden flesh that reddens as it ripens. “One of the best things about Callisto is that it is a late-season plum, even later than the Angelino,” explains Myers. “This makes it a really good choice for retailers who want to extend the import stone fruit season later into spring to dovetail into the domestic plum harvest.”

    Cherries Make for Cheery Winter

    The timing is also right for cherries, which are increasingly available in winter. Oppy’s import cherry season has been underway since early November.

    “Cherry exports from Chile and Argentina are up, and we are seeing more cherry promotions as consumers discover and get excited about the increased availability of this typically summer item during the winter months,” Myers says.

    Cherries are a perennial favorite with scores of shoppers, and the Q3 2014 edition of FreshFacts finds that love only growing stronger: The fruit posted the highest growth in the fruit category, with dollar sales increasing 16.9 percent and volume up 36.7 percent.

    Oppy is participating in the highly successful “Sesame Street” Eat Brighter! movement, selling limited volumes of cherries in Cookie Monster packaging. “It has been a fun and effective way to marry up a kid-friendly pack with an easy-snacking item,” observes Myers.

    New Nectarines

    Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. Inc. is reporting “extremely good growing conditions this year.” The result, according to VP of Marketing Dionysios Christou, “will bring our stone fruit supplies back to normal, unlike last season with the two freezes that devastated the crop.”

    The Coral Gables, Fla.-based company will introduce two new nectarine varieties in 2015: The Andes 3 and Extreme Red. Both are large in size, with a full red color.

    “The retail sector has already shown great interest in carrying new-crop stone fruit,” Christou says, “and is planning ads throughout the season.”

    “The retail sector has already shown great interest in carrying new-crop stone fruit, and is planning ads throughout the season.”
    —Dionysios Christou, Del Monte Fresh Produce

    By Jennifer Strailey
    • About Jennifer Strailey

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