Proximity to population makes apples from eastern states even sweeter.
By Dorothy Noble
Apples are one of the delights of nature, says Brenda Briggs, vice president, sales and marketing, Rice Fruit Company, in Gardners, PA. And a sizable portion of U.S. consumers agree.
Apples lead total fruit available for consumption, reports the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At more than 26 pounds per person during 2021, about 9 pounds of apples were enjoyed fresh. Close to 15 pounds were squeezed into apple juice.
Thirty-two states raise apples commercially. Washington State ranks the highest, followed by Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Apples from the latter three states, along with several other smaller producers, are typically considered Eastern Apples. (Editor’s note: Michigan and New York will be covered in the next issue.)
Numerous Eastern apple orchards complement and compete with apples in other regions. Also, many of these often-multi-generational growers operate farm stores, and also pack and ship apples, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic and South. Many offer other tree fruits, additional commodities and some tourism, while keeping state-of-the-art production facilities.
Sandy Cohen, president of Cohen Produce Marketing, Aspers, PA, assures clients, “The East can compete with apples from Washington State.”
But it’s not only the quality of Eastern apples that bestows a significant advantage. Their proximity to the highly populated Northeastern, East Coast, and Southeastern markets means shorter times to receive fresher apples, with lower shipping costs as well.
SEASON LOOKS GOOD — SO FAR
The unpredictability of weather makes assessing the apple crop in early July tricky. However, Wayne Hollabaugh, assistant wholesale manager for Hollabaugh Bros., Inc., Biglerville, PA, viewing their 400-plus apple acres, says, “The crop looks decent, just a few low spots, marks on fruit. It’s an average crop now.”
Knowing the weather can change, he adds, “I feel better when the crop is in the cooler.”
Ellie Vranich, Hollabaugh’s business and marketing manager, adds they are running ahead for harvest. “It’s growing well. Setting fruit nicely.” Echoing Hollabaugh, she says, “We have a long way to go.”
Cohen says the potential in Pennsylvania is “a very nice crop of fruit. The volume is there — a fair amount of local fruit for merchandisers to market local apples.”
Briggs says she is optimistic for the Pennsylvania apple crop. “We’ve had favorable growing conditions. Now, we will be watching for cool weather to bring on the color.”
The Pennsylvania crop is estimated at 10.75 million bushels, she adds.
Mary Johnston, sales and market manager, Shenandoah Valley Orchards, Timberville, VA, praises the present crop. “We are currently looking at the third record season — it was the second record last year, with higher numbers that exceeded estimates.”
Henry Chiles, owner/sales, Crown Orchards, Covesville, VA, agrees it looks like a good crop. A February frost did a little damage to the King bloom bud, which can limit large sizes, but Chiles indicates, “Many want medium size.”
Owner Dottie Dunn, Baugher’s Orchards and Farms, Westminster, MD, also reports, “It’s a very good crop; last year was good, too.”
Eastern apple orchardists grow a dazzling number of varieties — old, almost forgotten specimens; current in-vogue varieties; new crosses and strains of familiar ones, plus brand-new choices.
A few varieties start vine ripening in August, but the first two weeks in October mark the peak season, while some favorites sweeten the winter holidays.
Briggs illustrates the Rice Fruit crop: “We are among the first in the U.S. to have fresh crop Honeycrisp, with their distinctive burst of juice and flavor. Ambrosia follows soon after, with their delicious aromatic taste — truly food for the gods. Gala is a customer favorite — our Gala has the taste and shelf appeal that our customers count on to bring consumers back for more. Golden Delicious might be considered old-fashioned by some, but an eastern Gold has a distinctive sweetness and versatility for snacking, salads, or baking. EverCrisp is an apple we think more people will discover. Crisp, sweet and juicy. SnapDragon lives up to its name with a snappy crunch and flavor.”
New varieties generate excitement, and Briggs describes a newer variety called Lemonade, as a firm, crisp yellow apple that is a consumer favorite from New Zealand. She said they have young plantings in Pennsylvania, and Lemonade has proven itself and it stores well.
“After one taste, it will earn its place on the shelf.”
At Shenandoah Valley Orchards, Johnston produces 10 specific varieties for her cider customers and specific varieties for juice producers. Bicolors, including Ambrosia, are favored by restaurants. She, along with Chiles, lists hard, crisp, pale green, sweet-tart Albemarle Pippin, reportedly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple, as another popular fresh variety. Chiles adds Winesap, pie-favorite Granny Smith, Cosmic Crisp, Gala and Fuji to his offerings.
“Tastes vary among cultural groups, but Honeycrisp, Fuji, Gala, EverCrisp, Pink Lady and Granny Smith are tops in volume,” says Hollabaugh, adding the trend is toward more sweet, than tart, varieties.
Hollabaugh Bros.’ Vranich notes, “Customers like SnapDragon a lot, and also the older types, Winesap and Stayman.”
Hollabaugh grows 50 varieties — “that’s our claim to fame,” Vranich says. She describes Hollabaugh’s newest Gala strain, Wildfire, which has “a nice size and good color.” They also have a new golden FyreFly, which Vranich says has a “fantastic complex flavor” and crisp bite. “It’s like biting into apple cider,” she explains, “It has a great balance of sweet and tart tastes.”
Baugher’s grows 35 varieties, Dunn says. Among the usual Honeycrisp, Pink Lady and Granny Smith names, customers can find Blondie, JonaGold, Ida Red, Ginger Gold, Macoun, Mutsu, York Imperial and more.
David Peters, Peters Orchards, Gardners, PA, grows 70 varieties, including few of the heritage varieties such as Transparent, Summer Rambo, Cox Orange Pippin and Smokehouse. With current favorites, he notes, “EverCrisp is giving a run for Honeycrisp.”
Bear Mountain Orchards, Aspers, PA, is growing Gala, Crimson Crisp and EverCrisp, but is in the process of removing the old Honeycrisp varieties, and planting the Red Honeycrisp strain, according to Patrick Malloy, sales and operations manager. He just added 400 acres, with some varieties already on trees in an old orchard, and he is replanting rapidly.
Malloy forecasts, “In five to seven years, we will be producing 1 million bushels.”
At Hess Brother’s Fruit Company, Lancaster, PA, along with their popular varieties, a new winter/spring apple called WildTwist — a late harvest variety, explains Chris Sandwick, director of marketing — will appear on grocers’ shelves in January. Bred from Honeycrisp and Cripps Pink, Hess Brother’s website says it snacks and bakes beautifully. It describes it as “something sweet and a little tart, and a little more crunch.”
Cohen Produce Marketing’s Cohen adds WildTwist maintains its firmness. “It’s a great apple — production and sales are growing every year. It’s my favorite apple.”
PROMOTE TASTE, VARIETY
As noted, many Eastern apple growers/shippers also operate their own farm markets. “Farm markets want 30 varieties on peak weekends,” says Hollabaugh, adding traditional retailers want a few. “There is competition for shelf space.”
“Customers look for what’s new and different,” Vranich says, and in-store sampling is effective, as is cross-merchandising. “Cheeses, mustards and the charcuterie trend shows off how to display apples for a nice party.”
Baugher’s Dunn recommends creating large, bountiful displays, and using attractive signs that people understand, catch attention, and direct customers for cross-merchandising. At their market, they cross-merchandise with pectin for jam, caramels for candied apples, chocolate dips, and also hand out recipes.
Roots Market, an independently owned natural food store, Clarksville, MD, attracts customers in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and treats Eastern apples as locally grown. “We try to give a good spot, eye level, front and center, to highlight local people,” says produce associate Jan Lukenoff. “Our apples display can include our honey-roasted peanut butter, or our cheese department picks cheddar, Gouda and others to accompany the apples.”
Apples, with their varied flavor attributes and healthful benefits, can attain higher sales through education and “buzz.” “Social media — some people live on the phone, and word travels fast,” says Vranich.
“Sampling is always great when available,” says Rice Fruit Company’s Briggs, “but there is no replacement for an educated store staff that cares about the produce in their department and can help consumers pick the right apple for their preferred flavor profile.”
Sampling works, agrees Myles Chasser, fruit buyer, Four Seasons Produce Inc., Ephrata, PA. “The No. 1 takeaway for apples is tasting.”
He advises retailer produce managers to find an apple they like “and ask the grower to give you a free case,” and cut them into samples. “Once a quality apple gets into customers’ mouths, they’re hooked and will buy — and shop in your store.”
For displays, “make them big, beautiful, and make them exciting. You’ve got to get people thinking about eating healthy,” Chasser says. “Produce is a destination.”