Whatever your opinion on organics, there’s a market for it.
Organic apples have been one of the better sellers compared to other types of organic produce, said Joe Eisinger, organic produce buyer for Nathel & Nathel Inc., Bronx, N.Y., a produce wholesaler, exporter and broker since 1922.
Demand for organic apples has been a little higher than the same time last year, he said. However, the market was a bit weaker price-wise because new growers started offering organics.
“They didn’t have an established customer base to sell them to, so they lowered the price,” Eisinger said.
Coming from Washington, the supply of organic apples has been steady for Nathel & Nathel.
The company has about 200 stock-keeping units of organic produce among 500 items altogether, Ira Nathel said. The firm has seven varieties of organic apples: fuji, gala, granny smith, Honeycrisp, golden delicious, Pink Lady and red delicious.
“The Honeycrisp sells the best because of the flavor. It’s a high-end apple,” Eisinger said.
Most of his retail customers are higher-end and carry all seven varieties of organic apples.
Washington’s dry climate provides “huge” competitive advantage over New York’s orchards because the less humidity, the more ideal it is for organic production, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, Wenatchee.
“The dry climate, combined with rich soils, consistent water availability and low pest and disease complexes create the perfect climate for expansive organic production,” Fryhover said.
The 2018-19 season of organic apple production comprises 16.7 million apples of the total production, and volume is increasing each season, he said. It’s a pretty steep jump from the 13.37 million apples in the previous season.
Also seeing growth in organic apples is Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, Wash., said Roger Pepperl, marketing director. The company is starting its 30th year of growing and selling organic apples.
“We are in this organic thing forever,” Pepperl said.
“We now have the right apples — such as Honeycrisp, Piñata, fuji, SweeTango and gala — that drive apple sales. That is what organic shoppers want,” Pepperl said.
Supplies are up this season due to many orchards transitioning throughout the state, he said. Pricing is a premium but in proportions that allow 50-cent to $1 premiums per pound.
“The customer expects this and is fine with it,” Pepperl said.
Growing apples and stone fruit, Jim Bittner of Bittner Singer Orchards beside Lake Ontario in Appleton, N.Y., near Niagara Falls grows USDA-certified organic apples, but that comprises only 2% of his apple crop.
“You’ll find very, very little organic on the East Coast,” Bittner said one day as he took a break to talk in his office in a converted farmhouse on his land.
He agreed New York’s climate disadvantage means it’s hard to keep apples blemish-free with the strict rules on types of pesticide allowed for organic certification.
So, Bittner’s organic apples are for apple sauce. It’s too risky to use them as a fresh-produce product.
“I don’t believe in it anyway,” he said.
Members of the Organic Fruit Growers Association do fresh sales and value-added production, such as fruit butters, sauces, ciders, fruit leathers, vinegars and jellies, said association president Dan Kelly.
But most of the group’s growers serve their local markets and have fewer than 10 acres each. Kelly runs Blue Heron Orchard in Canton, Mo., where he started planting organics in 1990 and became the first certified-organic apple orchard in Missouri in 2000.
For the 2017 season, Blue Heron’s diversity of value-added products allowed apple products to be sold throughout the year.
“And no apples are disposed of or discounted,” Kelly said.
— See what the facilities of several New York apple packers look like in our slide show.