Cornell’s breeding program has produced a new star variety.
Originally printed in the September 2022 issue of Produce Business.
After weather problems reduced the harvest last year, New York apples are poised for a comeback in 2022.
“It looks like it will be a good crop,” says Tim Mansfield, director of sales and marketing for Sun Orchard Fruit Company, Burt, NY. “Last year we had poor bloom and a problem with alternate bearing with Honeycrisp.”
Morris Riessen started selling apples from the back of his truck in 1907 and the company he started has grown to become Sun Orchard, which ships for 30 growers in central and western New York, with a controlled storage facility that can manage 600,000 bushels.
Those growers find customers in at least half the country.
“I think New York apples do well east of the Mississippi,” Mansfield says. “We have a complex soil here and it makes for great-tasting apples.”
Northeastern consumers can look forward to abundant supplies of local apples this year. “We have a beautiful crop this year, thankfully,” says Kaari Stannard, president of Yes! Apples, Glenmont, NY. “It’s a few percentage points greater than last year and meets the five-year average.”
Some shippers combine apples out of storage and imports to offer a year-round supply.
“Our domestic crop will be available to sell starting in August, continuing through June,” says Stannard. “Then, we import SweeTango and Honeycrisp, which are sold during July and August.”
Not Your Grandparents’ Apples
The varieties in the apple display have changed significantly the last few years, especially with the arrival of SnapDragon and RubyFrost from the Cornell University breeding program.
“Our mix also includes key varieties such as Honeycrisp, Fuji, Gala and Pink Lady,” says Stannard. “Some varieties that are becoming less popular include Red Delicious, Gingergold, Jonagold and Macouns, among others. There are always changes we need to keep up with as we plan our mix for the coming season.”
Many of the newly popular apples, like Evercrisp and SnapDragon, are variations on Honeycrisp.
“EverCrisp is a big opportunity for growth as we continue to educate customers about its fantastic flavor and hearty crunch,” says Stannard. “With Honeycrisp as one of the parent varieties, EverCrisp offers similar attributes as one of the customers’ favorite varieties. We also see growth in the popularity of Rave, SnapDragon and SweeTango.”
Honeycrisp continues to be a year-round fan favorite, Stannard adds, and Yes! Apples collaborates with NY growers and exporters from Nova Scotia and New Zealand to deliver Honeycrisp 12 months out of the year.
Retailers have noticed this change in customer preferences in apples.
“There is a shift in what customers are looking for,” says Justin Rowe, category business manager for fruit at Tops Friendly Markets, Williamsville, NY. “The apples that are seeing the most growth are the new high flavor varieties that are coming out. Some of the old legacy varietals, like Red Delicious, are taking a back seat to some of the great varieties that are coming out of New York. Some of the successful varieties include SnapDragon, Ruby Frost and Evercrisp.”
Tops Friendly Markets dates to early last century when Italian immigrant Ferrante Castellani opened a neighborhood grocery store in Niagara Falls. Future generations built on that beginning to develop a chain of 145 markets in upstate New York, Vermont and northern Pennsylvania. Two years ago, Tops merged with Price Chopper and Market 32 to form a Schenectady, NY-based company with stores in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Tops has remade its apple displays as new varieties arrive and consumer preferences change.
“We are starting to phase out some older varieties to make way for the new, better-tasting apples,” says Rowe. “We are also going to call out the names of these apples in our ads so that customers become familiar with them.”
As the apple category evolves, gaining consumer loyalty to new varieties can be encouraged by keeping them in the display for months, rather than weeks.
“Keep them on the shelf longer,” advises Jessica Wells, executive director of Crunch Time Apple Growers, Lockport, NY. “Give the consumer a chance to be a repeat customer. If they’re only on the shelf a month, the consumer doesn’t have a chance to buy them a second time.”
Crunch Time Apple Growers is a cooperative of 147 New York family farmers who combine for 60% of the state’s apple production. This cooperative’s close work with Cornell University researchers led to the 2013 release of SnapDragon and RubyFrost.
Because most consumers keep apples at home longer than they do stone fruit or berries, retailers need to display new varieties longer to allow customers who like them enough time to come back for more.
“SnapDragon had a great year last year,” Wells says. “It is a sweet apple and we’ve seen retailers start them in October and continue until we run out in March. Once consumers try SnapDragon, they will buy them again.”
From the Honeycrisp line, SnapDragon has already emerged as a leading eating apple with sweet taste and good crunch, while RubyFrost is gaining favor as a slow-to-brown cooking apple.
New Ways of Talking (Apples)
New York apple growers insist their fruit has flavor that cannot be matched.
“The taste of a New York-grown apple is unique — much different from what consumers might be familiar with,” says Stannard. “Yes! Apples are grown for flavor, in the heart of New York’s Hudson Valley and along the coast of Lake Ontario, where the mineral-rich soil helps create a taste unmatched anywhere else.”
Unfortunately, letting consumers taste the difference became more difficult because sampling was curtailed during the pandemic. So savvy shippers and retailers have become adept at using the Internet to merchandise apples and other produce.
“Digital marketing has grown leaps and bounds over the last couple of years,” says Rowe. “We have seen the success of e-coupons grow to the point that they are a very important tool in our advertising strategy. We plan to utilize more of these digital assets in 2022’s NY apple season.”
Some growers use digital platforms to ship directly to consumers.
“We launched our online store to allow consumers to have our apples shipped directly to their door — it can’t get fresher than that,” says Stannard. “Plus, we’ll be offering new assortments and a couple of surprise collaborations this fall.”
She said apple enthusiasts can keep up with Yes! Apples on its website and on social media, as well as in stores. “We’re always working on new ways to reach consumers,” says Stannard. “We know consumers shop in a variety of ways, which is why we offer multiple options for them to buy Yes! Apples. Whether they’re buying our apples in person from one of our retail partners or ordering from our online shop, we want to meet consumers where they are.”
Digital campaigns include educating consumers on how the different varieties are best used.
Yes! Apples explains how to use apples, educates consumers about how to cook with apples beyond baking, and shares how different varieties of apples work for various purposes, says Stannard. “For example, we recommend apples like Cortland and Empire for pie recipes because they hold up well, and SnapDragon and SweeTango are great for salads and sandwiches because of their sweet flavor and mighty crunch. We also highlight information like ensuring consumers refrigerate their apples to keep them fresher longer.”
Direct marketing allows consumers to let shippers know how their fruit is being received, she adds. “We’ve received customer feedback that when they open a box of Yes! Apples they’ve ordered from our site, the smell of apples fills the room and makes them feel like they just stepped into an orchard.”
One message that resonates with many consumers is the freshness of apples grown close to the store, and the reduced carbon footprint that comes with shorter shipping distances.
With the high and rising price for diesel, New York apples have a significant edge in shipping costs compared to fruit from Washington and the rest of the West.
“Because of our location in New York state, we’re close to consumers in the East and Northeast. We pack our apples on the day they’re picked, ship on day two, and they’re in stores by day three, ensuring the freshest possible product,” says Stannard.
“Our proximity means we can reduce our food miles and our overall carbon footprint. We’re also looking to partner with a carbon footprint offset organization that will allow our ecommerce customers an opportunity to offset the carbon emissions from their online orders.”
While the category is evolving, there is no substitute for boots on the produce department floor, because maintaining a well-stocked, good-looking display remains the most important thing retailers can do to move apples in volume.
“You should refresh the apples three or four times a day,” says Sun Orchard Fruit Company’s Mansfield. “You have culls, and people drop apples and put them back in the display. You should refresh the display several times a day, especially before peak traffic times. Shelf space and ads are the biggest things in moving apples.”