Regional apples find loyal consumers - The Packer

Regional apples find loyal consumers

10/14/2011 11:07:00 AM
Chris Koger

Local apples aren’t a tough sell to retailers, according to Eastern apple growers and shippers.

“I think a lot of the club stores still want to have regional apples available, and that’s helping us a lot, and rightly so, with the costs of long-distance transportation,” said Chuck Andola, chief operating officer of New Paltz, N.Y.-based United Apple Sales LLC.

“We’re always going to be able to deliver along the Eastern Seaboard less than what it costs Washington, no matter what. Of course, that’s just exacerbated by increased fuel costs, which helps locally with our product. And, we have better and better quality. It’s off the tree and marketed. The East Coast is a lot bigger place than it was two years ago.”

Cost is just a part of the equation, though, said Brian Nicholson, president of Geneva, N.Y.-based Red Jacket Orchards.

“It’s everything — it’s huge,” he said.

“The retailers recognize that the New York apple industry is a very well-organized industry, and they’re focused on the consumers and are aware of the marketing efforts we make, and they appreciate that. But beyond that, they appreciate we have such a high-tonnage item and a high-quality item that is really local.”

The season has grown, as well, Nicholson said.

“They have stretched out their selling period and extended their shelving space for us, and it has helped all of us,” he said.

There has been a long-standing disagreement about what constitutes locally grown, but, for some Eastern apple shippers, “close” is close enough, said Jim Allen, president of the Fishers-based New York Apple Association.

“It’s hard to explain local and how far you push the envelope on how you define local,” he said.

“We supply markets up and down the East Coast and in the Northeast, and they all think of New York apples as local.”

Three categories fall into the “local” realm, Allen said.

“One is processing, but the other two are the commercial category and direct sales, pick-your-owns, farm markets, green markets,” he said.

“Throughout New York, that’s a huge, growing category. New York apples supply farm markets from Ohio to Boston to Maryland and Virginia. It’s huge. I look at New York City, for example, and how important those markets are for us. They have over 80 green markets in New York City and there are three apple vendors in each one of those markets. It’s huge volumes.”

Either way, there are lots of apples to move in the region, Allen said, noting New York’s estimated 30 million bushels. In addition, Pennsylvania expects to ship around 10 million and Virginia, 6 million bushels, according to officials in those states.

The availability of locally grown apples is good for the sellers and the buyers, said Tim Mansfield, sales and marketing director with Burt, N.Y.-based Sun Orchard Fruit Co.

“I think overall it’s a good thing because it gets more people involved in eating fresh product and along with the USDA’s plate-simplified recommendation for food, I think that’s certainly helped for fresh fruit and produce, because it’s over 50% of what’s recommended,” he said.

“As far as what we do, the local thing, when you look at the overall volume, it’s a small percentage, so it’s not really taking away from what we do. It’s kind of a seasonal thing.”

The Eastern apple deal remains seasonal, but growers and shippers make the most of their time in the market, Mansfield said.

“People aren’t going to be eating local stuff in the Northeast after summer and early fall,” he said.

“The overall effect is beneficial, because it’s raising awareness.”

One definition of “local” is to convey a sense of context to the grower and their products, some in the industry have said. Rice Fruit Co., based in Gardners, Pa., works to do just that, said John Rice, the grower-shipper’s president.

“We have a fairly good program going with our Pennsylvania retailers and Maryland,” he said.

“And they promote the local, often with our name on it. It seems to strike a receptive chord among consumers who are interested in buying fruit that doesn’t come from across the country. It’s kind of a movement to get to know the grower. A lot of times, there are signs identifying the sources and in some cases, they put up a poster with picture on it.”

Eastern apple growers and shippers have plenty of potential customers, said Jack Bream, owner of Bream Orchards, Orrtanna, Pa.

“We’re within 200 miles of how many million consumers? That is our local market,” he said.

“The local chains support the local fruit. It’s great that they’re there.”

That support should continue to pick up momentum, said Jamie Williams, president of Turkey Knob Apples Inc., Timberville, Va., which is the marketing arm of Bowman Fruit Sales LLC.

“That just continues to pick up more and more steam,” he said.

“Wal-Mart has been a big supporter of that and some other larger chains are jumping on board with it. People are looking for ways to get more locally grown product in their stores. Virginia had a big push on that with its ‘Buy Fresh Buy Local’ program.”

Henry Chiles, president of Crown Orchard Fruit Co. in Charlottesville, Va., agreed.

“It’s very important,” he said. “We get good support on local from all the chains.”

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