Washington Apples Turn Over A New Leaf

Ambrosia ApplesPhoto Courtesy of CMI

Due to the high maintenance of Honeycrisp, growers are expanding horizons with hybrids for better production, storage and consumer appeal.

As summer begins to wind down in the final days of August, produce retailers around the country have a mouth-watering choice of which fresh fruit from the West to display most prominently.

Columbia Marketing International’s Daisy Girl

Substantial acreage and markets for organic apples, such as Columbia Marketing International’s Daisy Girl Organics brand, are a significant part of the industry.

While these are the final days of the peaches, table grapes and other soft fruit out of California, late August is also the time for the first early season fresh apples from the state of Washington.

The most profitable answer might be to plan ahead well enough to be able to sell both.

“The initial challenge is the soft fruit and grape deal are still going out of California when we start,” says Steve Lutz, vice president of marketing at Columbia Marketing International (CMI), Wenatchee, WA. “It’s hard to get retailers to reset their space until after Labor Day.”

It might be worth a call to corporate for help lining up the space, signage and other promotional materials to take full advantage of this month when Washington is virtually the only apple game in town.

“We’re always going by late August with Gala, Gold and early Fuji,” says Lutz. “The next apples don’t come until the later part of September. You work with retailers to plan. Most of the time you have to rely on the retailers for signage, and so much of it is controlled at the corporate level that there’s little flexibility.”

A More Complex Category

While the first apples from out West present a merchandising opportunity late every summer, the new and interesting varieties coming out of Washington promise to change the category all year-round.

Washington apple growers are not only the first to supply the market with domestic apples in a big way every year, trailing only the modest California supply, but they also usually lead in taking new varieties mainstream.

Consumer interest in the new varieties is making the apple category ever more complex, challenging, and, potentially, rewarding.

“It’s like the expansion in the grape category with all the specialty varieties,” says Andy Tudor, director of business development at Rainier Fruit Company, Yakima, WA. “We’re seeing that coming in apples, but it doesn’t happen as quickly.”

“There aren’t necessarily new techniques, but a combination of demos, contests, secondary displays, and category planning with retailers to determine
when to promote new varieties, and newer packaging that includes pouch bags.”

— Chuck Sinks, Sage Fruit Company

For shippers such as Rainier Fruit, with its relatively new proprietary varieties Junami and Lady Alice, the introduction process begins with being able to harvest enough volume.

“It’s incumbent on us to get production up to commercial levels as soon as possible,” says Tudor. “After that it takes a tremendous amount of time and expense. You have to figure out how you can get this apple, or at least a taste of it, into the consumer’s mouth.”

For apple producers growing and harvesting a new improved variety in volume, however, is just the beginning of a long process.

“You have to focus your time and energy to introduce it to the consumer,” says Fred Wescott, president of Honeybear Marketing Co., Elgin, MN. “It’s expensive; it takes everything from demos to media. You can’t just grow it and they will come. It’s a collaborative effort. Once you have an apple, it’s a three-, four- or five-year journey to do this.”

Retailers must play a major role in giving customers an opportunity to make a decision about new varieties.

“There aren’t necessarily new techniques, but a combination of demos, contests, secondary displays, and category planning is used by retailers to determine when to promote new varieties and packaging, such as pouch bags,” says Chuck Sinks, president, sales and marketing at Sage Fruit Company, Yakima, WA. “If a retailer is carrying a new variety, then call attention to it through signage or secondary displays to give consumers an opportunity to recognize it is something different than the normal offering.”

The bottomline in introducing a new apple variety, assuming it has the right stuff, is getting enough customers to try it. “The trick is to get the fruit in people’s hands as quick as you can,” says Roger Pepperl, marketing director at Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, WA. “Promotion will lower the barrier to trial, so ads are very important. We do a lot of demo programs as they also aid in the conversion of consumers. We use social media, bloggers and our own blog as tools to get the word out. Big displays are also important.”

Sampling can help by getting customers to give promising new varieties the taste test. “Consumers need a reason to purchase something new or different,” says Sinks. “If they have a positive experience, there is opportunity for repeat sales. If demos are allowed at stores, we recommend them with new varieties to increase trial. Some retailers are selecting a newer variety and merchandising it for a month at a time.”

Carrying more varieties of apples makes the allocation of shelf space, especially premium shelf space, a difficulty worth some thought.

“There’s a limit to how many varieties a retailer is going to carry,” says Wescott of Honeybear. “Every retailer is different, but any variety has to pay for its shelf space. Shelf space is worth a certain amount of money. The expansion challenges retailers to make it workable.”

Greater variety in the apple category also complicates the job of educating consumers. “It used to be consumers knew the top six or so varieties,” says Wescott. “There are getting to be far more varieties, and you can’t just put them out there and expect the consumer to know about them. Six, seven or eight varieties dominated throughout the last century. Now the number is at least 20 and not all consumers know about all of them. At six to eight varieties, it was a question of good price. Now some fruit costs more, because it’s hard to grow; but if it’s good, it will still sell.”

This increased complexity, however, brings the advantage of being able to offer not just the first apples, but also the first special apples, sometimes as early as August.

“Being the first domestic apple to market isn’t as hard as it used to be,” says Pepperl. “Now with Aztec Fuji and year-round Gala supplies out of storage, we maintain great apple displays year-round. SweeTango is the first apple to market in the West. We start packing by the third week of August on SweeTango. It isn’t just the first apple; it is fantastic. Then Gala starts several days later. It is important to have sugars and acids prior to picking and to delight the consumers on the first try.”

A number of industry resources are available to help retailers and consumers sort out this increasingly complex category. “There are many new proprietary varieties — check out our website and see for yourself,” says Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, Wenatchee, WA.

One of the major Washington shippers also has a resource to help match apple varieties with their uses.

“Stemilt just launched a website that is called, ‘There’s an Apple for That,’” says Pepperl. “This site encourages people to find the best apples for the recipe or use they desire. It is a fun and easy tool to help encourage using apples. This will tie in well with retail promotions and with our social media and food influencers that we work with. This is real exciting.”

New Varieties With A Honeycrisp Theme

Many of the new varieties on the horizon from Washington are improved versions of Honeycrisp — the popular apple that practically invented mouth appeal. But unfortunately it stores poorly, looks a bit bland on display, and comes with a legion of problems for the growers.

One new Washington State University cross between Honeycrisp and Enterprise, named Cosmic Crisp, is already generating buzz throughout the apple industry.

“Honeycrisp is the variety that is growing in both popularity and volume,” says Fryhover. “One new proprietary variety that is just beginning cultivation is Cosmic Crisp. This is a Washington State-only variety with great expectations in the future.”

This new variety is acing the taste test, but only limited quantities are out there. “The Cosmic Crisp trees are still in the production phase,” says Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing at Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan, WA. “I think it’s going to be a very good apple. One of the ways I tell is what happens when I bring a box back to the office. It may not be scientific, but the Cosmic Crisp really disappeared.”

“One new proprietary variety that is just beginning cultivation is Cosmic Crisp. This is a Washington State-only variety with great expectations in the future.”

— Todd Fryhover, Washington Apple Commission

While a few samples of this potential new superstar will be available soon, full market penetration is probably around three years down the road. “The Cosmic Crisp is grower- friendly,” says Riggan. “I think it’s being planted pretty aggressively. There aren’t many now, but there may be in the fall of 2019.”

There are, however, other apples also offering a new ripple on the Honeycrisp wave that should be available soon — possibly as soon as this year.

“The things that will be out are the hybrid Honeycrisp, like the Firestorm Honeycrisp,” says Lutz from CMI. “It’s much redder and has better shelf appeal. Growers put in trees three or four years ago, and those trees are just coming into production.”

SweeTango is an earlier Honeycrisp cross that is already familiar to many consumers. “Stemilt continues to produce SweeTango, which is one of the best apples produced in the world,” says Pepperl. “SweeTango is a cross between Honeycrisp and Zestar, and it was developed by the same breeder at the University of Minnesota that brought us Honeycrisp. You will love this apples’ deep citrus notes of flavor surrounded by a most distinguishing crunch. This is a must try if you like apples as it is crazy good.”

Behind the great interest in developing apples that are similar to Honeycrisp is the aggravating litany of difficulties farmers face in growing this apple that practically invented mouth appeal.

“The grower is looking for something like a Honeycrisp, but not as hard to grow,” says Rainier Fruit’s Tudor. “Honeycrisp tends to grow on spurs, two together, so when you pick one, the other falls to the ground. They get split stem like Gala, bitter pit like Golden, or scald like Fuji.”

Even with its challenges, Honeycrisp continues to offer opportunities for Washington growers. “Honeycrisp continues to roll out more trees and acreage,” says Pepperl. “The newer plantings of recent years will be coming into production each year now, which will bolster numbers. Stemilt has big projects on Honeycrisp going on as we speak. We are planting a sport of the variety that has unbelievable flavor, pressures and acids that will give the consumers a great experience in spring and early summer storage fruit. This is most exciting.”

The reason this difficult fruit is capturing more market share is that consumers have shown they are willing to pay for the farmers’ troubles. “Honeycrisp has all kinds of problems to grow, but a good Honeycrisp proved consumers would buy them — even if they are more expensive,” says Wescott.

Many‬ Varieties

This is an ever-changing category, because many growers and shippers are enthusiastically in search of the next great apple, and new varieties can become major sellers. “We’re getting good increases with our Ambrosia variety,” says Lutz of CMI. “We have the U.S. rights, and it’s up to the ninth largest variety.”

Other apple shippers are also hoping to strike gold with exclusive rights to new varieties. “Sage Fruit is currently planting the Breeze apple to add to our portfolio of offerings,” says Sinks.

Sage Fruit Breeze Apples

Sage Fruit is planting the Breeze apple to add to its portfolio. This variety was originally developed in New Zealand, and the grower-shipper currently has exclusive plantings in North America. Breeze is a sweet apple with a bit of tang that matures just before the Gala.

“This variety was originally developed in New Zealand, and we will be the only grower-shipper with plantings in North America. This is a sweet apple with a bit of tang that matures just before the Gala.”

Some of the new apples are improvements on varieties that are already familiar to many consumers. “Stemilt transitioned the majority of the Fuji crop to Aztec Fuji,” says Pepperl. “We are going to market this Fuji as a ‘Fuji’ — rather than a trademarked name like some others. Shelf space is tight, and we feel this is the No. 1 Fuji for consumers and for the orchards.

“The fantastic thing about the Aztec Fuji is that it colors real well, which allows the fruit for late storage to be picked with good starch reserves for conversion to sugars.

— Roger Pepperl, Stemilt Growers

“The fantastic thing about the Aztec Fuji is that it colors real well, which allows the fruit for late storage to be picked with good starch reserves for conversion to sugars.  This allows it to be packed in late Spring and Summer and have the crunch and sweetness that Fuji fans crave. The Aztec is going to drive the Fuji variety at Stemilt and, we feel, build consumer demand in the process. Aztec is going to change retailers’ apple category.”

Much of the recently planted Washington acreage is either varieties that have only recently joined the list of top sellers or proprietary club varieties. “Many young high-density orchards are coming into production around Washington,” says Sinks. “The varieties that continue to see the largest growth in production are Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji, and Pink Lady. Club varieties continue to be planted, but these are being done in a controlled way with carefully managed production by individual shippers who have rights to specific club varieties.”

Although not a variety, organic apples are a category that continues to show healthy growth.

“We’ll have a surge in organic production this year,” says Lutz.

Some major shippers developed substantial acreage and markets for organic apples as a major part of their operations.

“Organic apples are the other huge category,” says Pepperl. “Stemilt is near 30 percent organic, and we have been doing organic since 1989. It is part of our culture and diversity.”

Healthy Promotions

Produce EndcapGood nutrition is a special selling point for apples. “The healthy attributes are the cornerstone of our export messaging,” says Fryhover from the Apple Commission. “Health, nutrition and the associated advantages to eating a diet rich in fiber and vitamins.”

Stemilt is building a promotion for an organic, kid-sized apple as a highly nutritious snack. “One huge initiative is our Lil’ Snapper program,” says Pepperl. “This award-winning kid-sized apple program is aimed at parents and kids in selling more apples, pears and citrus to families. We will now be adding a complete line of Organic Lil’ Snapper 3# bags to the line-up; 3# bags keep the ring size and volume high on organic customers who buy more produce than traditional shoppers. Why not maximize this customer?”

Merchandising can combine the delicious appeal of the fruit with its place in a healthy diet. “We always reiterate that all produce is healthy for consumers, but what we also want to focus on taste and flavor,” says Sinks.

Apples fit well with the More Matters campaign to encourage consumers to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. “We tie More Matters into our promotions, packaging and customer tie-ins with health,” says Pepperl. “Produce for Better Health is a huge tool in helping us connect with dieticians and information on health and our products. The amount of data available to members is incredible, and we encourage the whole produce industry to get involved and join.”