Packer Interview - Don Roper Aug. 19
The Packer's Tom Karst visits with Don Roper Aug. 19 ( The Packer )

The mix of apple varieties is all shook up compared with 30 years, and Don Roper believes that is a good thing.

Don Roper, vice president of sales and marketing for Honeybear Marketing LLC, Elgin, Minn., recently spoke with The Packer about the upcoming apple season.

With the industry as a whole bring more flavorful apple varieties to the market, he said the challenge for apple grower-shippers is to transition out of older varieties and invest in newer varieties.

Honeybear Marketing has a selection of varieties that are performing well, he said. The Pazazz is a late-season domestic variety, with flavor that inspire some to call the apple “a fruit Jolly Rancher,” Roper said.

The company also has big volumes of domestic Honeycrisp and also runs an import program of Chilean Honeycrisp in the summer. Roper said Honeybear accounts for close to 80% of the import Chilean Honeycrisp volume.

“We had a vintage crop from Chile this year and you combine this with a significant amount of this being organic, we were really able to provide our retail partners with a strong competitive advantage,” Roper said. 

Honeybear Marketing has expanded production capabilities in Washington state by nearly 40% this year, he said. 

With orchards fully transitioned, Roper said Honeybear will have a significant jump in organic apple volume.

Roper said Honeybear is focused on operating with a demand driven mindset, with a focus on packing a premium product every day.

“We have always been demand driven,” he said, noting the their emphasis on high color galas, sport fuji, and Honeycrisp. In fact, he said Honeycrisp account for about 55% of the company’s variety portfolio of 5 million cartons in Washington, compared with an overall average of just 12% Honeycrisp for the industry as a whole.

The key is looking at what consumers want, he said.

“If we understand what the consumers want, we want to work backwards and make sure we’re growing the products that consumers want,” he said. “You won’t find a lot of reds, goldens, granny, braeburns, or jonagolds - we are really focused on the varieties that are making a difference for the consumers that are that are bringing them home.”

This fall, Roper said the Honeybear will offer bigger volume of its proprietary Pazazz variety in the 2019-20 marketing season, in addition to great shipments of Honeycrisp.

The company is rolling out its First Kiss variety apples in the Midwest in August.

A promising new variety  is in the early stages of development and years away from significant commercial volume.

Called Honeybear 102, the new unnamed variety is butter yellow and features what Roper calls “tropical flavor with a hint of nuttiness”

“It sizes a little smaller - we are working on how to grow it bigger, because we want the big retail sizes, but it is really clean, pretty and very flavorful apple,” he said. 

National outlook

Washington state industry leaders have estimated the state’s fresh crop at just over 137 million boxes. Roper said that level of production is near the optimum level of production that the industry can effectively deal with.

Anything significantly above 135 million fresh boxes in Washington brings questions whether labor would be sufficient to pick the crop in the required time window, Roper said. With the Washington fresh crop at under 120 million cartons for the 2018-19 season and some carryover to the new crop, he said it won’t be a walk in the park to market the bigger volume.

The upcoming crop could be viewed “half full” and “half-empty,” depending on perspective, he said.
“I think on the positive side, what I would tell you that there was a big change going on with varieties,” he said. Growers are putting new varieties in the ground and improving flavor profiles in apples. That is important, he said, to keep apples as a preferred fruit by consumers.

“Consumers will vote with their dollars and look for something that has flavor,” he said. 

“What I would see as the positive outlook there a lot of are really new good varieties that are coming to the marketplace that are exciting consumers; the tough part of it is getting consumers to change your buying behavior in try some new varieties,” he said.

Older varieties like red delicious will lose shelf space to newer varieties.

While growers have responded to growing organic demand by growing more organic fruit, Roper said there is a little fear about that supply could outweigh demand this year.

“There is a lot of areas of the country that might pull organics, but they’re not 25% (organic) for apples; they might be 8% or 4%,” he said. “So it’s still a big growth opportunity there and we need to get the consumer to move (towards organic),” he said.

Cosmic Crisp

Honeybear Marketing won’t have any Cosmic Crisp variety volume out of Washington state this year, but will in future years. 

Roper said the variety will grow fast in volume in the next few years, with some projections that Cosmic Crisp volume in Washington state will reach 10.5 million boxes by 2022.

“There is only 15 million cases of Honeycrisp Washington today, and it’s been around 25 years,” he said. “(The Cosmic Crisp) has got to be a pretty big marketing challenge,” he said.

 
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