Michigan has 14.9 million apple trees in commercial production, covering 34,500 acres on 775 family-run farms.
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
An after-school crunchy snack. Sparkly fruit salad. Warm fragrant pie. All are more satisfying with apples, and Michigan’s new apple crop stands ready to fulfill apple lovers’ aspirations.
“This fall brings the second large Michigan apple crop in a row for our industry,” says Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee (MAC) in Lansing.
She reports Michigan’s 2023 crop estimate is 32 million bushels (1.344 billion pounds) of apples. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Michigan harvested a record 32.38 million bushels of apples in 2022, and the average annual crop size is approximately 24 million bushels.
There are more than 14.9 million apple trees in commercial production, covering 34,500 acres on 775 family-run farms in Michigan.
Trish Taylor, marketing manager for the integrated packer/shipper Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc., Sparta, says the size of this year’s crop “looks to be on par with last season for Michigan. We’ve had great weather for growing. And while the early season was dry, that helped to mitigate issues that occur with humid, wet days, so the fruit has excellent quality.”
The cool nights and warm days of Michigan produce the third largest crop of apples in the U.S. Their great number of varieties — with their flavorful quality aided by their climate and rich soil — ensures nearly year-round availability.
Smith notes flavor profiles differ for each variety, but Michigan growers produce a variety for every taste.
MANY VARIETIES TO MARKET
Smith says Honeycrisp, Gala and Fuji are the most popular varieties, and Cripps Pink, EverCrisp and Ambrosia are also growing in popularity. “Many people love traditional favorites, such as McIntosh, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious, as well.”
North Bay Produce, with its numerous grower-owners, distributes a wide range of apples worldwide, according to Ken Korson, apple category manager for the Traverse City-based cooperative.
Honeycrisp remains the most popular variety and one of North Bay’s biggest sellers, Korson says. Galas remain popular throughout the year, he adds, and the Red Delicious apple remains “a popular and affordable choice.”
“EverCrisp, Pink Lady, and Ambrosia are the newer varieties that are coming on strong out of Michigan,” Korson observes. “Older demographics still appreciate Jonathan, Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Macs, Fuji, and some of the older varieties, as they are consistently reliable and provide good value.”
Korson says Ambrosia and Pink Lady are two newer apple varieties for the North Bay cooperative of growers and will have more availability in the market this fall.
For the Applewood Fresh Growers network, based in Sparta, the earlier variety apples have a high demand, says Shelby Babcock, sales and marketing specialist for the grower/packer/shipper, with SweeTango and Rave apples being at the top of that list.
“Our production this year is growing with SweeTango and Rave varieties, allowing us to provide more volume to our customers and a range of sizing for bag and tray pack fruit. The popularity of these apples relies solely on the eating experience they give, with a higher flavor profile than some varieties.”
“I think one of the most beneficial marketing tools would be the in-store signage and demos. Letting customers try a product firsthand pushes them to purchase.”— Shelby Babcock, Applewood Fresh Growers, Sparta, MI
Applewood Fresh Growers describes the flavor profiles and uses of about 20 apple varieties on the website. For example, the Kiki variety attributes includes brix level, sweetness to tartness balance, coloration, and November to July availability.
Riveridge Produce Marketing’s Taylor reinforces the popularity of Honeycrisp, Gala and Fuji as its most popular apples. “They have the flavor for today’s consumer palate,” she explains, but adds, for a late season variety, “EverCrisp has gained steam for its wintertime crunch and flavor.”
Typical harvest start dates of the almost-20 current varieties available through Riveridge include: Paula Red, Aug. 19; Honeycrisp, Sept. 1; Empire, Sept. 22; Red Delicious, Sept. 25; EverCrisp, Oct. 22; and Pink Lady, Oct. 28.
Bassett’s Markets, headquartered in Port Clinton, OH, with four supermarkets close to Lake Erie, features more than a half dozen typical apple varieties, along with organic Honeycrisp and Gala. Paul Meyer, produce manager, notes his customers ask for specific apple varieties. Although the organic apples are not the top sellers, he says, “some people seek them.”
In the fall, during what he terms “pie season,” he says, “Granny Smith goes fast. People just grab them.” Both the bulk sales and bags sell well.
Public relations and community engagement manager Katie Cothron, Save A Lot, Saint Ann, MO, says the chain’s retail partners “across the country have the flexibility to source and stock items that are appropriate from the communities they serve. That may mean from us or from a local vendor.”
MICHIGAN APPLES IN U.S. AND ABROAD
Michigan apples’ reputation for quality stretches across the U.S. and into several countries. Although MAC’s Smith says only a small percentage of Michigan apples are exported, “it is important for us to maintain a presence globally, and foster trade relationships in existing and new markets.”
Most Michigan apples are sold domestically in approximately 32 states, she says.
Applewood Fresh’s Babcock points out Michigan’s location in the U.S. is beneficial for transportation and mobility. “We have packing facilities in the northern areas of Michigan as well as the southeast, giving an advantage to our customers for logistics and fruit offered.”
Korson reports North Bay delivers apples to various destinations, including the East Coast, Florida, Texas and the Rocky Mountains.
“Prepacked apples, such as those in 3-pound poly and 2- and 3-pound pouch, continue to be the choice of consumers at checkout. They’re easier to select when doing shopping online, and shoppers can rest assured they’ve gone through a packing process where the fruit is checked for quality, size, color, and washed.”— Trish Taylor, Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc., Sparta, MI
“Prepacked apples, such as those in 3-pound poly and 2- and 3-pound pouch, continue to be the choice of consumers at checkout,” says Taylor. “They’re easier to select when doing shopping online, and shoppers can rest assured they’ve gone through a packing process where the fruit is checked for quality, size, color, and washed.”
At Riveridge Produce, Taylor says growers follow quality control steps “right in the field to determine storage longevity, which is helpful packing an entire year.”
WAYS TO SELL MORE APPLES
Social media is a marketing tool that is often overthought and overlooked, says Babcock. But, she adds, “After the pandemic, there has been a shift.”
“I think one of the most beneficial marketing tools would be the in-store signage and demos. Letting customers try a product firsthand pushes them to purchase,” she recommends. “Telling your product’s story through the packaging and in-store signage is crucial and will continue to grow, as many people choose products based on their taste preferences, emotional connection and overall experience.
Babcock adds Applewood Fresh can create and design materials specific to customers’ needs, such as in-store signage, informational display cards, digital ads, and media elements that are new and relevant.
Smith says the state board is continuing its strong presence on social media. “We have recently added TikTok to our online offerings, with the goal of reaching our target to raise brand awareness and educate consumers.”
For the 2023 crop year, the MAC has launched a redesigned website, Smith adds. “This website is consumer-facing, with health information, recipes and information on where consumers can find Michigan apples.”
And don’t overlook in-store displays. “In my opinion, it is crucial for retailers to create captivating displays at the store’s entrance to attract apple consumers and boost sales,” says Korson.
In many of the Save A Lot locations across the country, “our promo items are typically on larger displays near the front of the produce department,” Cothron reports. “Our marketing team does a great job of using different bold colors to communicate different items and help give the display or section some appeal to the customer, while also helping the customer differentiate varietals among that product.”
BUY LOCAL STILL IMPORTANT
“Everyone wants to know where their food comes from, but local is even more important these days with the cost of freight. The fewer miles a piece of fruit must travel, the fewer costs built in,” says Riveridge’s Taylor. “But also, consumers want to know their fruit comes from local family orchards — so they’re supporting those invested in the community.”
Meyer says Bassett’s uses signs that alert customers to local products, adding, “We buy Honeycrisp from a local producer.”
“People want local, regional fruit,” Babcock stresses. “The farm-to-table movement. Local movement of fruit ensures freshness, benefits the environment, and supports the local economy. It allows us to provide a quicker turnaround time on shipments and keep fresh apples stocked on those shelves.”
“Local is extremely important,” Smith agrees. “Apples in fall are part of the culture in Michigan. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and want to support local whenever they can. Each individual retailer has its own method of merchandising apples, particularly in the fall. Those in Michigan and close by do a great job of emphasizing freshness and support of local farmers.”
But Michigan growers also recognize their growing market goes beyond “local.” “The local market is always important, but as our crop increases in Michigan, it’s important to expand our distribution beyond the local market,” says North Bay’s Korson. “We continue to work on partnerships to transport our fruit to various parts of the U.S. and the world.”
“The future of Michigan apples looks promising as long as we remain competitive in terms of pricing and continue to export a portion of the crop to balance out what is being imported,” he says.