Cherry producers in the United States require innovation through the development and commercialization of new cultivars. Both sweet (Prunus avium L.) and tart cherries (P. cerasus L.) are economically important in many regions of the United States. In 2010, the United States produced 190.4 million pounds of tart cherries and 312,720 t of sweet cherries (Knopf, 2011). In 2010, 96% of sweet cherries were sold fresh and were worth $685.0 million (NASS, 2013). Washington was the leading production state with 156,000 t followed by California (97,000 t), Oregon (38,150 t), Michigan (15,100 t), and Montana (2,470 t) (USDA, 2011). In 2010, 97% of tart cherries were processed and were worth $39.7 million (NASS, 2013). Michigan was the leading tart cherry-producing state (135.0 million pounds) followed by Utah (23.0 million pounds), Washington (15.4 million pounds), New York (7.8 million pounds), and Wisconsin (5.7 million pounds) (USDA, 2011). To meet growing domestic and international market demands, producers require development and commercialization of superior new cultivars.
New cherry cultivars with improved performance benefit producers directly. However, other members of the supply chain benefit from new cultivars with improved quality, availability, affordability, and health benefits. Cherry breeding programs face a significant challenge to develop cultivars incorporating the range of attributes preferred by the various components of the supply chain. All breeding programs require significant financial, human, and time resources to develop, evaluate, and commercialize new cultivars, but this is especially true for crops with long juvenility periods and extensive, complex field testing requirements such as cherries (Fuglie and Walker, 2001; Song et al., 2008). Cultivar development routinely takes more than 20 years from the initial cross to commercialization. Thus, any strategy that hastens this process and improves cherry breeding efficiency has high potential economic impact throughout the supply chain.
Genetic improvement in cherry has contributed significantly to improved product quality, management practices, and product uniformity (Hennessy et al., 2004; Lusk, 2007). Continued development of additional tools using genetic engineering technology can greatly improve breeding program efficiency, but application of this technology requires significant additional knowledge and resources. Therefore, focusing on priority traits is important (Alpuerto et al., 2009; Luby and Shaw, 2001). Supply chain members’ decisions are often influenced by needs, tradition, personal experiences, preferences, and beliefs that can lead to discrepancies among member groups. For producers, different biotic and abiotic stresses related to geographic location, pest pressure, storage and handling infrastructure, etc., complicate breeding program targets (Sy et al., 1997; Tano et al., 2003). Thus, cherry breeding programs could enhance efficiency of resource use and commercial impact by improved understanding of factors underlying preferences of supply chain members.
Unfortunately, few systematic studies identifying priority traits are available for the various components of the cherry supply chain to provide guidance to breeding programs in establishing target trait priorities. Breeders may rely on their personal experiences and producers’ feedback to prioritize plant and fruit traits, but this challenge is magnified when attempting to consider the possibly discrepant preferences of different members for the supply chain. The scant literature that exists typically does not focus on how the breeding program objectives were determined, but instead focuses on the objectives themselves. For instance, Stehr (2001) described a German cherry breeding program that focused on cracking resistance and tree health traits resulting from the high humidity of the region along with fruit size and firmness.
Producers’ preferences are greatly affected by their different end markets and horticultural practices (Sy et al., 1997). Because the majority of tart cherries are processed (NASS, 2013) and harvested by machine, fruit bruising reduces product quality and can heighten pit removal problems; thus, fruit firmness is an important quality trait. (Timm and Guyer, 1998). Most sweet cherries are sold fresh (NASS, 2013). Therefore, traits important to end consumers (such as size, color, soluble solid concentration, pH, sweet–sour balance, flavor, texture, and external firmness) are often targeted in sweet cherry breeding programs (Dever et al., 1996; Kappel et al., 1996). The needs of market intermediaries also differ significantly between tart and sweet cherry industries.
In addition to the end market’s impact, regional biotic and abiotic stresses impact producers’ value of traits (Tano et al., 2003). For cherries, a humid climate increases disease and pest pressure from brown rot (Monilinia) and cherry fruit flies (Tamm et al., 2002; Wearing et al., 2001). Consequently, as a result of different markets and regional stresses, identifying important cherry tree and fruit traits is challenging.
Currently in the United States, cherry breeders set goals based on industry feedback and regional perceived needs without the insight provided by a systematic study of supply chain members’ prioritization of traits. As part of a larger strategic socioeconomic analysis of trait values across cherry supply chain members, this study focused on sweet and tart cherry producers’ preferences for tree and fruit traits. This constitutes an important first step to fill a knowledge gap and improve the efficiency of breeding programs.
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