Great Lakes Make for Great Michigan Apples

During the harvest season, twice a month seems the recommended schedule for redoing a retail apple display. And this year’s ideal weather conditions has resulted in a large, high-quality apple crop for Michigan, so retailers can expect a full range of varieties this year.

After a tough 2021, the weather is cooperating for an ideal 2022 crop.

Originally printed in the September 2022 issue of Produce Business.

Michigan apple growers enjoy weather and soil conditions influenced by the Great Lakes that let them produce an abundance of apples with a distinctive flavor.

The state’s 775 family apple farmers harvest 665 million pounds of apples in a down year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, which ranks third in the nation behind only Washington and New York. This year, Michigan’s official apple crop estimate is 29.5 million bushels (1.239 billion pounds), according to the Michigan Apple Committee.

“Sunny days and cool nights sharpen our apples’ flavor, color, and crisp bite,” says Brian Coates, vice president for sales and business development at Applewood Fresh, Sparta, MI. “The climate is moderated by the lake — curbing extreme temperatures and extending the growing season later into fall.”

Applewood Fresh packs and ships the harvest from more than 11,000 acres of the state’s orchards.

“Many retailers look to highlight the local or regional aspect of Michigan apples, a good story for supporting local economies,” says Coates. “Many like the sustainability story — less food miles with Michigan apples than from western fruit. Fresher fruit for many locations in the eastern part of the country, due to less food miles and that we are a pack-to-order shipper. We do not pack up fruit ahead, we pack to the orders we get from our customers. We have a freight advantage as well with many areas of the country over Washington fruit, so that is a plus with many buyers.”

The state’s retailers note consumers anticipate the arrival of these local apples every summer.

“Customers look forward to Michigan apples,” says Mark Wales, produce manager at EconoFoods in Iron Mountain, MI. “We put up local signage.”

EconoFoods, with two dozen stores in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wyoming, was purchased three years ago by Tadych’s Foods.

“Apples out of Michigan travel all over the U.S. and are exported to many areas, including South and Central America,” says Sharon Robb, apple category manager at North Bay Produce, Traverse City, MI. “We will start packing and shipping the main varieties the first week of September and pack into July with the main varieties.”

North Bay Produce is a cooperative of 30 growers in North, Central, and South America who harvest and ship everything from apples and asparagus to strawberries and snap peas.

In addition to loyalty to farmers down the road and reputation built over the decades, Michigan apples benefit from lower shipping costs in much of the country in these inflationary times.

“Increased freight costs continue to rise throughout the U.S. Having a strong local movement in the Midwest becomes extremely important due to the cost savings and quick turnaround for the consumer and the grower,” says Robb.

A Good Crop Year

The Midwest’s leading apple producers appear poised for a comeback in 2022 after frost damage took a bite out of the harvest last year.

“Michigan growers are very enthusiastic about this year’s crop, expecting above-average in terms of quantity, as well as great quality fruit,” says Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee (MAC), Lansing, MI. Some Michigan growers offer organic apples, but the majority are conventionally grown.

“We are engaging consumers on social media to get them excited about the upcoming harvest. Consumers in and around Michigan love to support locally grown and the freshness of apples grown nearby. The above-average size of this crop means no concerns about availability for all our customers, and the great quality consumers have come to expect from Michigan will certainly be a focus.”

— Diane Smith, Michigan Apple Committee

The Michigan Apple Committee engages in grower-financed marketing, communication and research to support the third largest apple industry in the country.

This year’s expected strong harvest comes after weather problems damaged many of the state’s apple orchards in 2021.

“Last year, we only had about 60% of a crop due to frost and other weather issues,” says Robb. “Volume will be up considerably from last year, which will put us close to a normal crop in Michigan.”

In addition to an abundant supply, good weather should also make for better looking and tasting fruit.

“Quality is another key factor, how is the fruit looking and eating,” says Applewood Fresh’s Coates. “The processing market in Michigan has played a major role in what we have had to sell or not the past couple of seasons. High demand from processors, and the corresponding price they were paying, made it difficult to have fruit to pack for the fresh market.”

2022 figures to be a banner year, as Michigan’s orchards yield a bumper crop of quality apples, which will affect availability and merchandising strategies.

“This year’s crop looks to have the potential to be a large crop in Michigan, maybe even a record crop,” says Coates. “Quality, as of today, looks outstanding; it looks to be a very clean crop at this time, up from last year, which was a very low year. Crop size really is one of the main factors on how we go to market with the fruit.”

The volume will allow growers to send consumers their favorite varieties throughout the Midwest and beyond.

“For example, last year our crop was down on Honeycrisp by a substantial amount, which hurts ability to move other varieties when we do not have that many Honeycrisp,” says Coates. “We had to try other tactics to move the other varieties we have. Having the emerging/branded varieties does help us with that.”

Crisp and Crunchy

Michigan apples will continue the shift toward newer varieties consumers are coming to favor.

“The biggest changes to this year’s crop are the new varieties that will start to produce volume and be available to more of the public,” says Robb. “The varieties that will be available in volume this year are Evercrisp, Pink Lady and Ambrosia. These tasty apples will grow in volume and popularity with each passing year. Honeycrisp continues to be popular, and Michigan’s unique climate generated by the Great Lakes gives us outstanding color and exceptional flavor.”

Michigan prides itself on the quality of its Honeycrisp apples, the superstar variety first developed in the 1990s in nearby Minnesota.

While some retailers do little point-of-sale signage, those who share apple flavor profiles or best use on signs can garner more sales.

“By volume, Gala is our No. 1 seller year-round,” says Smith. “However, the Michigan Honeycrisp is the most sought-after apple we grow. The climate in Michigan is perfect for growing the best tasting Honeycrisp in the world.”

There will also be a Midwestern source of supply of the two newest varieties out of the Cornell University breeding program, SnapDragon and RubyFrost. SnapDragon, the latest from the Honeycrisp line, is rapidly gaining favor as a tasty apple.

Applewood Fresh Growers is the leader in Michigan with the new emerging/branded varieties: Rave, SweeTango, Kiku, Kanzi, EverCrisp, Ambrosia, says Coates, and is one of two Michigan suppliers who represent the SnapDragon and RubyFrost from New York State.

The larger crop means Michigan growers will offer greater supply of varieties from other regions that are becoming consumer favorites.

“Many retailers look to highlight the local or regional aspect of Michigan apples, a good story for supporting local economies.”

— Brian Coates, Applewood Fresh

“We are ramping up production on Rave in Michigan, which will allow us to service more of the Midwest customers,” says Coates. “We have planted more Rave acreage in northern Michigan that will come into production in the next couple of years. We will have our first year of production on Ambrosia this season, which will continue to grow each year. The SweeTango crop looks to be a very good one this year, a clean crop and volume will be the largest crop we have had so far in Michigan. Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji, McIntosh, SweeTango, Rave, Kanzi, and EverCrisp are the most popular varieties,” says Coates.

The emergence of new varieties, many of them Honeycrisp crosses, has encouraged savvy retailers to expand choices in the apple section.

“We carry 14 or 15 varieties,” says Wales from EconoFoods. “Cortlands, Macintoshes, and all the reds are the most popular.”

Post-COVID Sales

COVID has changed everything about apple merchandising. Until recently, sampling was a major tool for encouraging purchase, especially of the new varieties, but that is no longer always an option.

“Sampling continues to be a challenge post-COVID, but North Bay primarily focuses on packaging and signage to draw the customer in,” says Robb. “We are investing in advertising through billboards and social media, with promotions throughout the apple season. We are also always upgrading packaging to make things more attractive and convenient to the consumer.”

There are still, however, ways for retailers to draw attention to apples in person without sampling.

“Unfortunately, most retailers do not use much point of sale anymore,” says Coates. “But we do some custom signage for some customers on variety specific information. We suggest merchandising by flavor profile from sweet to tart. Most customers do not know the flavor profiles of all the apples, so we encourage putting something on the sign for flavor profile.”

North Bay also provides samples for customers to demo, and has given some a single sleeve with an apple in it to give to customers, such as a bonus in online orders.

As sampling slumped, many shippers and retailers stepped up their digital merchandising game to communicate with consumers from a safe social distance.

“We work with a number of retailers on specific digital marketing programs they have,” says Coates. “We have a large targeted digital campaign in Texas for SweeTango, along with one in Michigan for Rave and SweeTango. We work with an influencer, The Produce Moms. This is the third year we have worked with them, and we highlight our emerging/branded varieties primarily.”

The Michigan Apple Committee has also increased its use of digital ways of promoting apples.

“We are engaging consumers on social media to get them excited about the upcoming harvest,” says Smith. “Consumers in and around Michigan love to support locally grown and the freshness of apples grown nearby. The above-average size of this crop means no concerns about availability for all our customers, and the great quality consumers have come to expect from Michigan will certainly be a focus.”

Michigan prides itself on the quality of its Honeycrisp apples, the superstar variety first developed in the 1990s in nearby Minnesota.

Even farther away from Michigan, she adds, retailers can expect unmatched freshness and flavor. “After the first of the year, we will feature Michigan-grown EverCrisp, which has great flavor coming out of storage.”

The MAC can customize marketing programs to fit with retailers’ plans, Smith explains. “Our account managers can work with retail partners to build a program that works well for their specific needs.”

COVID has also encouraged the use of packaging that allows anxious consumers to quickly pick up their apples without spending a lot of time in a crowded produce department.

“Post pandemic, pre-packaged apples are still very popular with retailers,” says Smith. “Tote bags have found a permanent place in produce departments, as the grab-and-go aspect has helped many retailers gain additional sales in the apple category while saving much coveted labor hours. Sustainability is also key in packaging trends. Michigan shippers are exploring many avenues of recyclable and reusable packaging as well as informing the public on best practices to recycle or re-use poly bags.”

With new varieties making the apple category more complex every year, it is important to remake the display regularly as the harvest shifts from one variety to the next.

“Retailers should refresh displays every couple of weeks on the minimum, keep things fresh for the consumer, keep the displays looking a bit different, highlighting different varieties,” says Coates, of Applewood Fresh. “Getting the consumer expecting to see something fresh and new when they come into shop is important.”

During the harvest, twice a month seems the recommended schedule for redoing the apple display.
“I think retailers should update and refresh displays every couple of weeks so consumers will be drawn into displays and buy more apples,” says Robb.

One merchandising idea at the beginning of school is to display together many fruits of the right size for a schoolchild’s hand.

“The old, tried-and-true, back-to-school events, such as apples for lunches and after-school snacks are still a great way to capture those back-to-school dollars,” says Smith. “Out-of-the-box thinking is way more fun. Try promoting all back-to-school size fruit in one display at the same retail and offer a tote bag to fill up — apples, oranges, pears, tangerines, and the list goes on. Fruit is a fun and healthy alternative to sugary snacks. This also carries to kids sporting events. Apples are a great source of carbohydrates that will enhance stamina and boost the immune system. Educating parents and students about the benefits of eating fruit is a theme that we need to convey at all levels of marketing down to the point of purchase.”

Nothing helps move apples more than going through the display during the day to keep it well-stocked and to remove fruit that is bruised or decaying.

“We go through the display a couple times a day,” says Wales.