Don Armock, Riveridge Produce Marketing
Don Armock, Riveridge Produce Marketing

About a decade ago, when the U.S. apple market was in the doldrums and profit margins were shrinking, industry leaders such as Don Armock helped move the industry closer to the consumers.

That turned out to be a better place for growers, too.

“We are growing, to a much greater extent, what the consumer wants to buy,” said Armock, 59, partner in Sparta, Mich.-based Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc.

Armock won the The Packer’s 2010 Apple Man of the Year on the strength of his work in pushing the industry forward, including leadership positions on the Michigan Apple Committee, the U.S. Apple Export Council and other organizations.

One of the key drivers in any business is profitability, Armock said, and the apple industry is no different.

Coming into the 2011 crop year anticipating 25 million bushels, a 75% increase from a year ago and the fourth largest crop since 1988, Armock and other Michigan apple marketers have plenty of fruit to work with this year and expect strong pricing.

“I think the future of the apple industry is really bright,” Armock said. “There are technologies that have come into the apple business that allow us to deliver to the consumer what it is they are looking for in an eating experience.”

Better strains of apples and improved post-harvest technology that allows marketers to look inside the apple help make sure the customer won’t be disappointed by discolored or distasteful fruit.

The apple industry has benefitted from the expansion of new markets, including fresh-sliced and diced apples in quick-service outlets such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Chick Fil-A, Armock said.

“Apples are getting utilized in ways that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” he said. “These are spectacular things and because we had all the sorting out in the business ten years ago, we have right-sized ourselves in terms of variety mixes,” he said.

In the 1990s, the industry still relied heavily on traditional varieties such as red delicious. Now, apple growers throughout the U.S. are stepping up production of gala, fujis, honeycrisp and other newer varieties.

While there are new apple varieties in every generation, Armock said retailers now are using new varieties to gain a competitive edge with consumers.

New varieties have captured the imaginations of retailers and consumers, creating more margins for newer varieties and enabling investment in growing technology that brings orchards online faster than ever before.

“We can transition much faster than we used to,” Armock said. “It used to take literally a fourth of a person’s working career to get an orchard in production and break even,” he said.

Today, that period could be as short as three years.

Beyond apples, Armock says he believes the fresh produce industry will benefit from increasing momentum toward healthy living.

Armock said he learned about seeing the big picture and recognizing potential when he worked for Gordon Kleiman of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Spartan Stores after his graduation from college.

“He taught me anything is possible. It is just a matter of what do you want to do.”