LATE SUMMER FRUIT CROP GETS INTENSE SUPPORT

REEDLEY, Calif. -- The 1999 crop of peaches, plums and nectarines from California growers is hitting stores five days later than last year, due to fickle spring weather, according to the California Tree Fruit Agreement.ecent memory, according to Dale Janzen, CTFA field agent. Still, the fruit will be higher in quality than last year, when the three commodities were slammed by El Nino-related weather."We

REEDLEY, Calif. -- The 1999 crop of peaches, plums and nectarines from California growers is hitting stores five days later than last year, due to fickle spring weather, according to the California Tree Fruit Agreement.

ecent memory, according to Dale Janzen, CTFA field agent. Still, the fruit will be higher in quality than last year, when the three commodities were slammed by El Nino-related weather.

"We should have a better product to offer. It should have a lot of storability, and should be a stronger piece of fruit," he said.

After last year's troubles, the CTFA estimates that the pack-out this season for plums will increase by about one million packages (28-pound containers), followed by peaches, with an increase of about 500 thousand packages (25-pound containers) and then nectarines, with an increase of 200 thousand packages (25-pound containers).

Though the fruit is arriving to stores late, the CFTA is backing the season with a new promotion designed to boost retail-level sales through proper in-store ripening.

The centerpiece of the promotion is the Partners in Ripeness program, in which the CFTA certifies retailers who properly follow the organization's best practices for ripening, according to Dave Parker, CFTA's director of merchandising.

"What we're telling the customer on our signage is that proper handling means juicier fruit," he said. "And retailers who follow our protocols can take some of the credit."

According to CTFA officials, operators who successfully complete the organization's temperature audit qualify for the designation as a partner.

This requires retailers to adhere to the proper procedure for ripening peaches, plums and nectarines -- the removal of fruit from the cooler, warehousing it above 51 degrees Fahrenheit and storing the fruit at room temperature. Each phase contributes to proper ripening and better quality, said Parker.

Qualified operators participating in the Partners in Ripeness campaign are eligible to receive point-of-sale material that highlights the retailer's expertise in ripening the fruit.

Though some version of a store-level ripening campaign has been in existence since 1990, it wasn't until university researchers in 1994 discovered that storing the fruit at 36 to 50 degrees drastically reduced its shelf life, said Parker.

The difficulty of maintaining temperatures below the "killing range" was difficult throughout the distribution channel, but especially at the store level, where arriving fruit was already in the danger zone, he said.

"When we told retailers that, many of them quickly understood that they were damaging product that they had already purchased," he said.

The rollout of this new partnering program coincides with a plan to launch an intensive media campaign in June, when all three stone fruits are in stores in significant volume.

The initiative includes television spots in major markets, an FSI due to drop June 27 and a national tour by a cookbook author. Most important, however, is the scheduled airing in early July of a series of two-minute infomercials on The Food Network.

In these, the two stars of the NBC sitcom The Mommies "interview" guests about California summer fruits. Subjects covered in the infomercials include an explanation of how the fruit is grown, how consumers can ripen the fruit at home and how to use plums, peaches and nectarines in simple recipes.

A later episode will include a retailer describing his store's membership in the Partners in Ripeness program and the responsibilities it entails. Parker said this informercial is being held until the CTFA has audited enough retailers. This way, more consumers watching the infomercial will make the connection when they see the related signage in the store where they shop.

The television spots will begin airing May 31, and run for nine weeks in areas where the majority of retailers are following the CTFA's ripening protocols, said officials. They currently include Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Hartford, Conn., New York and Rochester, N.Y.

The newspaper FSI -- containing a 35 cents-off coupon -- will appear in 10 major markets around the country, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia and San Francisco/San Jose.