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CHERRIES ON THE WEB

 By Melissa Hansen, Good Fruit Grower Magazine

Published May 15, 2004

Selling fresh cherries on the Internet is the easy part.  Developing a packaging and shipping system that will protect the delicate fruit, keep it cold, and ensure "fresh picked" arrival is much more difficult.

Internet sales of sweet cherries have been a family affair, said Don Olmstead, Jr., president of Olmstead Orchards, Inc., Grandview, Washington.  It's been a great way to involves his daughter Carrie Olmstead Hay and daughter-in-law Molly Olmstead in the 200-acre family farm where his son Donald III (Donnie) helps him produce a variety of tree fruit - Bing and Rainier cherries, pears, apples, prunes, and plums.  Donnie returned six years ago after graduating from college.

"This was really their idea," Don said, referring to the Internet project they launched last season.  "I'm just going along for the ride.  My kids have the expertise in this."

FIRST YEAR

Daughter Carrie, who has her own graphic and Web site design company, designed the Olmstead Orchards Web site and on-line store.  She administers the site and provides the technical support needed to run a Web site.  Molly is in charge of processing cherry orders and shipping them and also helps her husband Donnie pick fruit for each order.  Donnie was responsible for designing a box and shipping container that could retain cold and stand up to the rigors of shipping.  He supervises the picking of cherries for Internet sales.

The Olmsteads are pleased with the results from their first season last year in which they sold about 500 pounds of Bings and Rainiers from the Internet store.  Their specially designed boxes hold 2.5 pounds of cherries, which are tucked inside a foil-lined bubble wrap and include a frozen cool pack.  Up to ten pounds of cherries (four 2.5-pound boxes) can be sent as one shipping unit.

A 2.5-pound box of Bings retails for $22.95; Rainiers sell for $27.95.  The customer pays for shipping by UPS, which usually averages $26 to $28 for second-day delivery.  Residents in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho pay much less for ground UPS shipping.

Thus far, only domestic orders are processed.  International shipping is extremely complicated, involving fumigation and licensed importers, and airfreight is expensive.

In their first year, orders were evenly split between Bings and Rainiers, Donnie reports, adding that about half of the orders placed were for gifts.  The only arrival problem they incurred last year was an order sent as a gift to someone who wasn't home until five days after the fruit arrived.  The Olmsteads replaced the order with a fresh box of cherries.

QUALITY

Because the Olmsteads are receiving a premium for their fruit, only the "best of the best" is picked.  Donnie saves certain trees for Internet sales only, keeping the commercial harvest crews away.  Many of the cherries weigh an ounce each, making them a "two-bite" cherry.

"We want to give them only the best,' Don said, adding that they want their quality to be superior to anything found in a farmer's market ort grocery store.

"All the responses to the Internet sales have been good so far," he said.  "What we're doing seems to be profitable.  It does feel good to sell some fruit where it doesn't matter what time or day it is but the price remains the same.  Psychologically, it feels good to know that you're receiving value for your efforts to produce a premium product."

The majority of their 500-ton cherry crop is marketed through Snokist Growers, a Yakima Valley marketing cooperative.

Their Internet site is designed to be both educational and informational.  Photos and text explain different orchard activities, stages of fruit growth, and information about the family and orchard history.

"If they can't come to see us, we want to use the Web site to bring the farm to them," Carrie said.

She notes that while there are lots of Internet sites promoting fresh cherries, many are fruit stands that do not ship or only offer a telephone order system.

The Olmsteads do both Internet and telephone orders.

"When we checked out the competition, there were only four or five major entities selling cherries," she said.  "But very few actually grow and sell their own cherries."

Molly said that customers placing a phone order are amazed that she goes out and hand selects and picks cherries for their order.  They pick cherries to fill orders to ensure freshness.

The Olmstead Orchards Web site has helped them reach commercial buyers as well.  Two elite grocery stores from New York - the Food Emporium and Zabar's- found Olmstead cherries on the Internet and placed orders through Snokist.  They shipped 1,200 of the small boxes to Food Emporium through Snokist.

"When Snokist sends buyers out to us, I refer them to our Web site afterwards if they want more information," Don said.

FUTURE

They believe sales will increase as the cherry store becomes more established.  From March to April, months before cherry season starts, they had more than 20 customers interested in pre-ordering cherries.  Their Web site averages around 650 visits per month.

"We don't know where this will take us, but we hope that it continues to grow," Donnie said.  "We've had people from Bellevue, Washington and even Alabama come to the orchard to see our cherries."

Carrie agrees that closer contact with consumers can only be a benefit.  "The future in farming is not in delivering your fruit to the warehouse.  We have to think outside the box if we want to remain profitable."

In the future, the Olmsteads may consider adding some of their other stone fruit to the Internet store, such as plums.  Wooden boxes designed for gifts could also be added to the line of goods.  They've discussed the potential of giving orchard and harvest tours during cherry season.

A LIVING

"Down the road, who knows, maybe the Internet sales could provide for a family living on ten acres of cherries," Don said.  But for now, he's enjoying the customer interest and attention that the Internet site and store are generating.

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