Designer apples are having a moment.
It’s a long moment, stretching from a few years ago and into the foreseeable future: Call them club, proprietary, branded or managed varieties, these niche apples continue to make their names known in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
“The apple category is maybe not at an all-time tumultuous moment, but it’s right up there. There’s a lot of tumult. We think it’s exciting,” said Andy Figart, president of Lancaster, Pa.-based Hess Bros. Fruit Co., which markets more than 20 varieties from Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.
“These early season varieties used to be mild varieties like ginger gold or paula red; they were good for their time, but with the evolution of the category, there are better-eating apples. Now it’s Honeycrisp.”
Compared to other years, Milton, N.Y.-based Hudson River Fruit Co. has a lot more Honeycrisp, galas, fujis and Pink Lady, said Alisha Albinder Camac, director of operations, who also works in sales and marketing.
The grower-packer-shipper owns and operates about 400 acres of farmland and represents more than 50 growers across the state of New York, plus a few in Vermont and Connecticut.
“We’ll be launching EverCrisp in a small way this year, which we’re excited about, as well as SnapDragon and RubyFrost,” Camac said.
“All these varieties are kind of inching their way into becoming a bigger piece of the pie.”
Varieties such as empire, mcintosh and cortland have a shrinking market, said Brett Kast, grower, co-owner and orchard manager of Albion, N.Y.-based Kast Farms.
At Gardners, Pa.-based Rice Fruit Co., CrimsonCrisp, Evercrisp, and Ambrosia are part of new plantings across the eastern third of the U.S., along with Honeycrisp, gala and Pink Lady, said Brenda Briggs, Rice’s vice president of sales and marketing.
“There is more change in the varietal offerings than at any time in history,” Briggs said.
“Consumers have been excited about our CrimsonCrisp. Its sweet-tart taste, snappy crunch and eye-catching good looks have earned a following in our local market.”
East Coast consumers still want their traditional varieties, however. Camac regularly fields e-mails asking where mcintosh are available.
“It’s nice to know those older varieties are still sought-after just as much, while we’re pushing these new varieties coming to market,” she said.
Still, the demand is increasing for the new players.
“We think of ourselves as a healthy snack food company. If we’re going to compete with Oreos and hot Fritos, we’ve got to have good flavor, and we do,” Figart said.
“People don’t choose a Snickers because it’s good for you. They choose it because it’s good every time. These new apple varieties do that.”
The Eastern apple season, which kicks into high gear in September and into fall, has been going pretty well so far with volume, quality, size and timing, growers and marketers say.
Hess will have a similar volume of fruit as the past few years, but “that mix inside those numbers is what matters. Our growers have been repositioning into more gala and Honeycrisp. They’ve really been making sure they’re investing in these new varieties,” Figart said.
“You’ve got to be well-positioned for the retailers who have to respond to what consumers are demanding.”
The company’s Virginia growers started harvesting around Aug. 8 and expected to pack the season’s first Honeycrisp from Virginia by mid-August.
The Pennsylvania crop, which may be 5% to 10% lower in volume than last year because of hail storms, won’t be far behind, as the state’s early varieties picked up. The apples not impacted look healthy, Figart said.
Rice Fruit Co. expects its incoming volume to be similar to last year, but to deliver more packed cases of all Eastern apple varieties about a week earlier.
“Nature has been more kind to our growers this season,” Briggs said.
For New York, the apples should be ready by mid- to later August for early varieties, while western New York apple growers are about a week behind because a rainy, cold spring put a damper on activity.
“It was hard to time how things were progressing with the bees pollinating the trees,” Camac said.
“You only need one hot, sunny day to pollinate a whole farm, but with the days overcast and rainy, we didn’t know what it would be, but it ended up being really successful.”
Between Buffalo, N.Y., and Rochester, N.Y., Kast Farms experienced a challenging spring on its 425 acres of fruit crops.
“Constant rains led to busy times, but we had good bloom and pollination weather. The early rains laid the groundwork for good size in the fruit this year,” Kast said.
“Through August we have had warm, not hot, days and cool nights, setting the stage for great color.”
By late August, Kast Farms was preparing for harvest, which will start with galas a week or so after Labor Day, followed by Honeycrisp and fuji. Other club varieties comprise about 20% of its apple crop.
Volume is about the same as in 2018, but the sizes are bigger, Kast said.
The 600-plus growers represented by the New York Apple Association are ahead of the state’s five-year average — “but barely,” said association president and CEO Cynthia Haskins.
In 2018, the state hovered at 34 million bushels. This year, it’s looking like about 31 million bushels. Typically it’s around 29 million bushels, Haskins said.
Commercial growers are not necessarily adding much more acreage, but they’re growing smarter by transitioning from standard-sized apple trees to compact dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstock.
“This allows more trees to be planted per acre and yields more fruit per acre. These trees also reach fruit-bearing age faster,” Haskins said.
New York’s exclusive club varieties, such as SnapDragon, are picked in the beginning of October and RubyFrost, a few weeks after that, Camac said. RubyFrost tastes better after storage, so it will be sold starting in January.