Organics Are Key Driver For Apple Sales Growth

New York An Emergent Organic Apple State?

IRI statistics show the Northeast and Great Lakes regions consumed around $153.6 million worth of organic apples in the 12 months to August 11, representing more than a third of the national figure.

As large volumes of apples are grown in these regions, why is it that so much needs to be brought in from the Pacific Northwest?

The answer quite simply is weather. Matt Wells, director of field services at Glenmont, NY-based New York Apple Sales, explains his state’s climate comes with natural rainfall, creating a “major challenge” for organic production.

“Humid or wet conditions in apple orchards allow for the prolific growth of diseases like apple scab,” he says. “Without modern crop protectants, apple tree health suffers, and the apples become commercially unacceptable.”

Cynthia Haskins, president and chief executive at the New York Apple Association, views these circumstances philosophically.

“Mother Nature has a mind of its own, and in agricultural areas that have more climatic conditions that require additional nurturing — it is about being responsibly responsive,” she says. “Those same climatic conditions are often also what make a particular agriculture region productive.”

It was these same conditions that led to a disheartening experience for Wolcott, NY-based Fowler Farms when the company made its first attempt at organic production 10 years ago.

“We had problems with it — insects, worms, you name it, it was a total failure,” says Austin Fowler, owner and vice president of marketing and sales. “We were kind of discouraged at that point in time, but then a few years back we said ‘that wasn’t trying our best, it wasn’t putting our best effort forward,’ so we started to transition some acreage over to organic.

“Some of our more Eastern traditional varieties like Mackintosh and Empire, they get scab very easily, and it’s very difficult to recover from — it gets all over the tree, it gets all over the apples, and it becomes almost impossible to recover the tree.”

The answer has been to grow similar varieties to those that have been successful in organics in the Pacific Northwest.

“Right now Honeycrisp is by far the largest amount that we have,” says Fowler, noting any variety that has a Honeycrisp parentage tends to be relatively scab-resistant. “Fuji is probably second, but that’s not really so great; it doesn’t lend itself.

“We’re transitioning some of that. We’ve done some SweeTango here, and next year we’ll have some SnapDragons, which is a variety that’s relatively new, but it also has Honeycrisp as one parent.”

Fowler estimates around 3-5% of his production is organic, with the company still very much in the learning stages. But there is great benefit to be found in consumers who are looking for both organic and local.

“The real niche is obviously in local organic — if you can speak to that, then you’ve got a full house,” notes Fowler.

“I think most people would probably say it’s not feasible, the packouts or the yields are not fantastic, but fortunately there can be very good returns on a secondary market so there’s apple sauce or organic baby food,” he says. “So the bad apples are worth a lot more money, in some cases as much as a conventional apple might be at retail.”