Michigan is the leading producer of tart cherries in the United States, but crop losses from extreme weather events, declining demand and competition from overseas producers is endangering the industry. Recognizing the need to improve the market for tart cherry products, representatives of the industry reached out to researchers in Michigan State University’s (MSU) Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE) for guidance. Responding to the industry’s needs, a team of AFRE extension faculty and graduate students began a multi-year research effort to understand the needs of tart cherry growers and producers, the preferences of consumers, and opportunities for market growth.
The AFRE research team’s efforts have culminated in a new report, “The Tart Cherry Market and Purchasing Preferences in the United States.” The report’s authors include AFRE Associate Professor Vincenzina Caputo, Assistant Professor Melissa McKendree, Assistant Professor Trey Malone and graduate students Valerie Kilders and Caitlinn Lineback.
“It was important to us to highlight the different tart cherry consumer segments and their corresponding attitudes,” says Kilders, the report’s lead author. “We focused on contrasting those consumers that already incorporated tart cherry products in some form with those that have not done so yet. In doing so, we were able to observe where the two groups differ and where potential marketing strategies could help in promoting the consumption of tart cherry products.”
The report was developed using a nationwide online survey of fruit consumers. The survey included questions on consumption, dietary, and expenditure habits, demographics, and utilized two discrete choice experiments on tart cherry juice selection. The researchers focused on tart cherry juice selection because it is one of the few tart cherry products that has seen an increase in demand. Kilders notes, “survey respondents were asked to choose between hypothetical options of tart cherry juice that have different attributes and prices. This allowed us to then determine which attributes respondents value and how much they are willing to pay on average to have this attribute present in the product.”
The authors found that there are clear differences between tart cherry consumers and non-tart cherry consumers. Tart cherry consumers are more likely to be millennials with kids, and are more likely to allocate a higher percentage of their budget to the purchasing of fresh fruit. Tart cherry consumers were also found to place a greater emphasis on the ‘naturalness’ of tart cherry juice, when making a purchasing decision. Kilders says, “Taken together our results demonstrate that producers and processors of tart cherries might benefit from focusing their attention on refining and diversifying the composition, visibility, and general marketing of their existing products in favor of new product development.”
A continued decline in tart cherry production and consumption could have ramifications for the state of Michigan that extend beyond growers and producers. “The challenges faced by the tart cherry industry not only create consequences for the Michigan economy, but tart cherries are also an important link to the collective cultural identity of Michiganders,” says Malone. “Every year, thousands of tourists travel to Northern Michigan for the national cherry festival to enjoy all things tart cherry, including dried cherries, juice, wine, pie, and many other products. Core AFRE faculty such as Professor Emeritus Don Ricks have provided long-standing support to the tart cherry industry, and this project provided a great opportunity for our current faculty to continue strengthening that relationship.”
Additional findings from the research effort include “Incorporating producer opinions into a SWOT analysis of the U.S. tart cherry industry”, “Market Segments in the Fresh Balaton Tart Cherry Market in Michigan” and "The Impact of Support Claims on Consumer Willingness to Pay for Origin and Nutrition Labels: The Case of Tart Cherry Juice.”
Support for the project was provided by MSU’s Project GREEN a collaborative research program housed within MSU and supported by agricultural commodity groups and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.