The forgotten berry? Industry works to promote cherries

When it comes to berries, America's favorites are strawberries and blueberries, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. We also eat more bananas than any other fresh fruit, followed by apples, and oranges.

The cherry – the fruit most important to Michigan – continues to be absent from this list. And Ray Pleva of Cedar, who has raised the level of the red, round fruit to new heights around the world, continues to fight to get the cherry the recognition he believes it deserves.

But despite all of his personal and professional success in the cherry industry, including his creation of the cherry "Plevalean" burger, several patents on cherry-enhanced products, and an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Pleva feels there is still not enough being done to promote the cherry.

"Everybody puts the blueberry on a pedestal. We need to get the cherry up there with it."

To that end, he recently invited a group of young cherry farmers to get together to brainstorm ideas.

"We need to work together as a cherry industry, instead of competing individually," Pleva stated.

One of the farmers who attended Pleva's meeting was 29-year-old Ben LaCross, whose family owns 500 acres of land throughout Leelanau County. LaCross Farms has been growing cherries since the 1970s and now produces 2 1/2 million pounds of cherries each year. LaCross says he is excited about this promotional initiative, but says it's going to be an uphill battle because the cherry industry is years behind other berries.

"Our goal is to be in the same conversation when it comes to blueberries or cranberries," he said.

Along with touting the great taste of cherries, the industry is also trying to tap into the health care sector.

"We all know that cherries taste great," says Pleva. "Now we just need to inform the general public about the health benefits."

Progress is at least being made on that front. In 2006, Pleva and Central Michigan University researchers announced a partnership to test Pleva's Cerise Nutraceuticals products and their ability to help treat Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Huntington's diseases.

Pleva's products are made from cherries and kalaya oil and other natural nutrients. All of the cherries used for this research come from Michigan farmers, Pleva said. He also recently announced that Kraft Chemical Co. in Illinois will be distributing his C-319 Tart Cherry Powder to the food and cosmetic industry. Pleva says the powder can extend the shelf life of food products and helps lower sodium.

According to the Cherry Marketing Institute (CMI), cherries are right up there with blueberries as one of the most nutritious fruits you can eat, packed with disease-fighting antioxidants. Other research has shown that daily consumption of cherries can help alleviate some of the pain associated with arthritis.

"If 10 percent of the people suffering from arthritis ate cherries on a regular basis, it would consume the entire tart cherry crop nationwide," says LaCross.

The CMI estimates that 300 million pounds of cherries are produced each year in the United States – 70 percent of which come from Michigan.

LaCross says the million dollar question is why the cherry industry hasn't captured the marketing success of the other berries. While there may not be one simple answer, the cherry industry is taking steps now to make sure cherries get national recognition. Along with looking for cherry research opportunities, it is also placing more ads in health and foods magazines. It has also hired Jeff Manning, the man behind the "Got Milk?" slogan, to help promote the "Choose Cherries" campaign.

"The campaign has been designed to position cherries not as a replacement for other fruits, but to be a part of the consideration set when consumers think about berries and other fruits to incorporate into the diet," said Manning.

Pleva says he is pleased that so many people in the industry are coming together to promote the cherry. But he is also looking for input from people outside of the cherry industry on this promotion initiative and is planning a March meeting of "outsiders."

"What we have done in the past hasn't worked well, so we need to take a look from the outside," he said. BN