This fruit is one of the largest and most valuable crops for the state.
According to the Michigan Apple Committee (MAC), Lansing, MI, Michigan is the third-largest producer of apples, coming in behind Washington and New York. The state has more than 11.3 million apple trees covering 35,500 acres on 825 family run farms.
The majority of Michigan’s apples are grown on the west side of the state, near Lake Michigan in light, well-drained, nutrient-dense soil. The lake climate moderates extreme temperatures, protecting the fragile spring buds and extending the growing season later into the fall. More than 16 varieties are produced each year. According to MAC, the landscape of a growing region plays a role in the health and success of the orchard. Lower areas can experience colder temperatures, while higher areas could be more exposed to the elements, but tend to set better fruit. Michigan’s apple growers take great care in planning the layout of the orchards with this consideration.
“It’s all about the flavor,” says Diane Smith, executive director of Michigan Apple Committee. “Michigan’s climate and unique geography provide cool nights, plenty of rain and lots of warm sunshine. This all helps to produce great flavor and color.”
Michigan apples are sold in 27 states and 18 countries. In the United States, its span goes east from Virginia to Florida, as far west as Texas and Colorado, and into North and South Dakota.
Larry Pierce, executive vice president, merchandising and marketing for SpartanNash, a distributor and retailer headquartered in Byron Center, MI, says the Great Lakes are an integral factor in creating the great flavors and textures of Michigan apples. “They provide cool nights and plenty of moisture to the growing areas — both important factors for flavorful apples of the highest quality,” he says. “The cold Michigan winters help keep the trees dormant; this resting period allows them to preserve their energy to grow future fruit and protects them from potential damage.”
Trish Taylor, account manager for Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc. in Sparta, MI, says the company has served as a grower, shipper and packer of Michigan apples for nearly 30 years; she has noticed a trend in the region where growers are focused on having the right varieties and strains, and the best production systems they can implement to grow more apples on less acreage. “In the packing facilities, we want to make sure we are adapting to new technologies as they become available so there are no surprises as to what’s inside the fruit, as well as to have quality control measures in place so that we are making sure the right fruit gets sold at the right time for the best eating experience,” she says.
Chris Sandwick, vice president, sales and marketing for BelleHarvest Sales Inc., Belding, MI, notes its growers take pride in focusing on the culinary aspects of the apples. “Our growers focus on varieties that grow well in our climate and respond to consumer demand for an exciting and healthy eating experience,” he says. “We view our competition not as other fresh fruit producers, but rather Frito Lay and confectionery manufacturer Mars. As a result, it’s important we work hard to deliver the same consistency of experience those unhealthy options provide.”
In doing so, the company’s growers have transitioned away from many of the traditional varieties that struggle to meet those demands, and replaced them with apples with superior crunch, taste and shelf-life, including Gala, Fuji and Honeycrisp, and newer varieties Smitten, Topaz and Evercrisp.
Tom Labbe, domestic and export sales manager for Jack Brown Produce, Sparta, MI, says the company’s growers and support system always talk about quality and focusing on having it match what it was last year. “It’s always about getting the best product to support our customer base so they are satisfied when they take a bite out of a Michigan apple,” he says. “That means the color you expect, the firmness when you hold onto it and the sweetness — they will all tell you it’s a Michigan apple. We want to create a great eating experience so people come back for more.”
Newer varieties and more convenient and attractive packaging are some of the latest trends in marketing Michigan apples. Taylor says consumers want to be able to quickly look at a package, learn where it’s grown and which variety fills the need they have — snack, baking, drying, etc.
“Convenient packaging makes apples the ideal on-the-go snack; we can be sure to be in more lunch bags and picked as a post-workout refueling choice alongside standby choices like bananas,” she says. “The USDA program is also a great way to get kids and families to choose apples. Some programs include weekend take-home bags of apples and apple sauces.”
Nick Mascari, vice president of sales for All Fresh GPS, Sparta, MI, acts as the sales and marketing arm for a group of Michigan apple growers who represent more than 11,000 acres.
“Call it out with signage and sampling to show Michigan apples can compete with other states. Our climate really gives apples flavor, color and a crisp bite you don’t get elsewhere.”
— Nick Mascari, All Fresh GPS
“Our job is to work with our retail customers and understand it’s not a one-size-fits-all program,” he says. “When we go to a customer, we tailor the program to their needs, using scan data and Nielsen data to implement a proper variety that will do best.”
Mascari believes visual merchandising is very important in selling apples. He recommends big, eye-catching displays with full and fresh Michigan apples. He also believes retailers need to concentrate more on bulk over bags. “My suggestion would be to start with an ad for bulk apples as a feature and use bags as a supplemental,” says Mascari. “Call it out with signage and sampling to show Michigan apples can compete with the other states. Our climate really gives our apples flavor, color and a crisp bite you don’t get elsewhere.”
Sandwick says through in-store demos, coordinated social media and secondary display options, his sales team works with retailers to help ensure customers find, try and remember these apples.
SpartanNash offers a “Bin Tote Bag” program where 600-lb. bins are displayed with smaller 5- and 3-lb. tote bags full of Honeycrisp apples for a quick grab-and-go option. It also encourages stores to merchandise split bin tote bags with Gala and McIntosh apples featured. “We have also seen great success with our ‘Buy 2 Get 3 Free’ program, utilizing 3-lb. bags of apples in the storewide promotion,” says Pierce. “Other successful ideas are utilizing Michigan apples in a ‘take-and-eat’ fruit display for kids, chef demonstrations in the produce department and custom packaging, including display-ready cases.”
One great way to better promote Michigan apples is by emphasizing the importance of the local movement. Pierce believes that from a growers’ perspective, it is beneficial to establish Michigan apples as a brand of its own, which would work in tandem with SpartanNash’s in-store efforts and showcase the benefits of locally grown apples.
“People are definitely loyal to homegrown products,” says Michigan Apple Committee’s Smith. “They want to support the farmer down the road and get the freshest produce possible. Not only do we get support from consumers, but retailers have also been helpful in supporting locally grown.”
To help consumers easily identify local products, SpartanNash’s 87 Michigan stores — including Family Fare Supermarket, D&W Fresh Market, Forest Hills Foods, Valu Land and VG’s — employ I Heart Michigan and Proud to Support Michigan signs on as many as 1,500 items throughout the stores’ footprint. “In addition, consumers can find photos and information about the farmers throughout the produce section,” says Pierce. “At SpartanNash, we understand customers have a growing appetite for locally grown items, and we have an equally strong appetite for supporting local farmers and producers.”
To increase sales, Jack Brown Produce’s Labbe says retailers need to take advantage of the different sizes of packages available to them. “They have an opportunity to do an 8-lb. bag or a 5-lb. bag and display them in a designated secondary area, which will help rings and help the apples catch the eye of the consumers,” he says. “I think the perception of local helps; there are no bounds. Our area is on people’s minds. Michigan is thought of as a great apple three states away, and it’s considered local.”
Riveridge Produce Marketing’s Taylor says retailers have been doing an outstanding job on helping consumers know where their food comes from and the face behind the food. “You’re seeing more signage and information on the growers,” she says. “Additionally, new packaging, including private label, allows retailers to provide the information their demographic is looking to learn. The local movement has been substantial and very successful. All of our major accounts want to promote the regional varieties and communicate where the apples are grown.”
While Smith doesn’t feel Michigan apples need to be marketed differently, she does think the knowledge of the consumer preference for the flavor of the apples offer could be emphasized.
“In our consumer research, we are hearing consumers prefer the flavor and appearance of Michigan apples,” she says. “We are working on some fun social media ideas to educate consumers about identifying Michigan apples in the marketplace. We are emphasizing the themes of flavor, and of course, the health benefits of apples. We have found social media to be extremely effective for reaching our target audience and interacting with them about Michigan apples. It’s such a great tradition in our state, and people get really excited about the new fall crop each year.”
The Michigan Apple Committee works with retailers on samplings, demonstrations, meal tips and other initiatives that will help keep customers interested in the state’s apples. The organization’s help extends to circular ads, loyalty programs, recipe cards, an amateur recipe contest through MAC and other contests.
Another successful marketing idea is to promote the different varieties and their uses in pies, juices, sauces and ciders, showcasing the versatility of the fruit.
Approximately 40 percent of Michigan’s apple growers are GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified — the USDA’s on-farm certification, and a great percentage of large Michigan apple shippers are USDA-GHP (Good Handling Practices) certified.
Thanks to USDA audits on Michigan apples, shippers, packers and growers, as well as third-party audits, can also provide full trace-back of the apples they pack and distribute, thereby allowing consumers to trace the apple on their table all the way back to the block of trees on the orchard where it was grown.
Since the state is located within 500 miles of half the U.S. population, Michigan apples have a smaller carbon footprint and growers within Michigan integrate natural methods and some organic practices to control pests and disease. Apple growers have also adopted no-till practices to reduce erosion.
Additionally, at all points along the supply chain, recyclable packaging and shipping materials are used, tree trimmings are composted, and across the industry, environmentally friendly lighting and cooling methods are used.
The apple growers also take great pride in their commitment to community and social responsibility; each year they collectively donate more than 1 million pounds of apples to hungry families through the Food Bank Council of Michigan.
At BelleHarvest Sales, its participation in newer, managed varieties has created an exciting atmosphere for the company. “We are traveling the globe seeking out new apples that will help us continue to provide an excellent eating experience for our customers,” says Sandwick. “We have also expanded our sales staff to meet the demands of introducing new products to the marketplace.
“It is unfair to expect our retail partners to ‘carry all the weight’ of a new variety introduction, so we’ve expanded our staff to offer further retail support while consumers adjust to these new options,” adds Sandwick of BelleHarvest Sales.
Current Crop Forecast
Although the official crop estimates won’t be released until after press time, most companies reveal things are expected to be strong — just not as strong as 2016.
Tom Labbe, domestic and export sales manager for Jack Brown Produce, Sparta, MI, says it won’t be a bumper crop like the last few years, but there will be enough apples to market all year-long. “We had a frost issue one day, where the weather went down to 22 degrees for a short time, and that devastated a certain part of Michigan,” he says. “It was a small spot, but it couldn’t be saved.”
Meanwhile, Riveridge Produce Marke-ting Inc. in Sparta, MI, anticipates just short of an average crop season. “Some regional apple varieties such as Jonagold and McIntosh will be lighter in volume, whereas the more-in-demand varieties of Honeycrisp, Gala and Fuji have fared well,” says Trish Taylor, account manager. “Honeycrisp, Gala and Fuji continue to grow in demand. We’ve planted more trees year over year to keep up with demand, including earlier producing varieties and strains with fuller color.”
According to Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, Lansing, MI, the average crop size for Michigan is about 23 million bushels, with Honeycrisp, Fuji, Gala and Jonagold consistent consumer favorites. Though the 2017 crop was marginally affected by some cool temperatures during bloom, it is shaping up to be on par with the state’s five-year average.
“We expect to have a full marketing season for our customers in the United States, as well as those overseas who have come to love the flavor,” says Chris Sandwick, vice president of sales and markting for BelleHarvest Sales Inc., Belding, MI.