Old varieties are still in demand, but growers are weeding them out in favor of proprietary varieties that they say taste better, have crunchier texture and sell for a higher price. ( Amy Sowder )

In the apple game, it’s all about name dropping. 

Honeycrisp was the breakout star adored by consumers, although it can be a headache to grow, store and ship because of its delicate nature.

Ever since, growers and marketers have been scrambling to come up with the next big thing. 

Could it be SnapDragon? EverCrisp? SweeTango? Cosmic Crisp? Rave? Ludacrisp? Kiku? Koru? RubyFrost? Sweet Cheeks?

“The names of apples influence the consumer. They speak to each apple,” said Rena Montedoro, vice president of sales and marketing for Crunch Time Apple Growers, a group of 147 New York apple growers united to market the SnapDragon and RubyFrost proprietary varieties they had developed by breeder Susan Brown at Cornell University. 

The group grew and harvested 214,000 bushels of SnapDragon in 2018, which is double the volume of the prior year, she said.

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Honeycrisp has been a proprietary success story others are trying to follow, but with hardier attributes. By Amy Sowder

 

Besides their stellar aesthetics, taste, texture and hardiness, the hope is that the proprietary nature of these apples makes them more desirable. Only certain growers are allowed to grow them. They’re exclusive.

That means classics like red delicious, cortland, mcintosh and granny smith are fading into the background, although the market is still there for them. Many consumers like what they’ve always had.

Even though red delicious is the best seller for Bittner-Singer Orchards, Appleton, N.Y., managing partner Jim Bittner said he cut down 20% of red and golden delicious trees in 2017. 

“We have to grow what we can get a good price for,” Bittner said. 

“We’re never going to plant more red delicious or cortland, maybe empire, maybe even gala. The only thing we’ve planted in the last three years is SnapDragon and RubyFrost. We need premium-priced apples. We don’t have a choice if we’re going to stay in the apple business.”

Bittner is a board member of Crunch Time Apple Growers, which has a partnership with Cornell to get a first look at its new varieties.

“The retailer is only going to handle so many varieties. We won’t bet the farm on one variety, but what do you put your money in these days? Club or managed varieties are what we’re looking at,” Bittner said.

Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, Pa., has been doing well with Kiku since harvest, said Brenda Briggs, vice president of Rice Fruit sales and marketing.

“It’s a great eating apple, with a refreshing bite of juicy sweetness,” Briggs said. Still, Honeycrisp is driving demand, along with the more classic fuji and gala, she said.

Sweet Cheeks is Lancaster, Pa.-based Hess Bros. Fruit Co.’s new trademark apple, whose parents are Honeycrisp and cripps pink. 

A nursery in Washington state created the hybrid, and Hess has them planted in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, with more trees going in the ground the past two years, said Andy Figart, sales and marketing manager. There has been good feedback from customer demonstrations, he said. 

“It’s a blend of sweet and tart. We’re all trying to find the next HoneyCrisp,” Figart said.

SnapDragons have also had a strong fall and are really building momentum as more and more consumers discover this variety, he said.

Paul Wafler of Wafler Farms in Wolcott, N.Y., agrees. 

“SnapDragon is a rockstar of apples. When it’s ripe, it’s unbelievable,” Wafler said.

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Jacob Wafler, Jim Allen and Paul Wafler examine sapling grafts at Wafler Nursery, Wolcott, N.Y. By Amy Sowder

 

Wafler has a nursery to play around with varieties and propagate them.

The hard part of creating new club varieties is timing the supply to match when demand hits because marketers can build hype for years while trying to convince growers to plant the apple, Wafler said. 

Convinced after tasting an EverCrisp his mother accidentally left in the refrigerator for a year, Wafler also thinks EverCrisp may be the next Honeycrisp. 

“It’s managed in a way that’s friendlier to growers compared to other club varieties,” he said.

Then there’s the even newer and wildly named Ludacrisp. The Midwest Apple Improvement Association, which introduced EverCrisp apples five years ago, just released this new trademark variety, and for a while at least, Wafler is the only licensed nursery to grow it.

In the Northwest, the 2019 launch of Cosmic Crisp will be the first proprietary apple from Washington state that can be promoted in foreign markets, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.

“We are very excited about it. Every grower contributes to this and will reap the benefits,” Fryhover said. “It will change the game on proprietary varieties.”

Cosmic Crisp’s inaugural 200,000-carton supply is expected to skyrocket to 15 million boxes in five years, he said. 

If the launch goes as predicted, the Cosmic Crisp could be the third largest variety produced in Washington state within five years, in 2023, Fryhover said. 

“That’s amazing, are you kidding me? That’s absolutely astounding. If it is the apple that everyone thinks it is — great texture, great flavor, easy to grow, great color, easy to store — it’s going to be a game changer in the U.S.,” he said. 

The other attribute of Cosmic Crisp is its non-browning capability.

Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, Wash., finished with Rave and SweeTango varieties by mid-December, and they moved very well, said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt’s marketing director.

“Both are going to be big winners in the category in the future because of supreme taste and early harvest — both great attributes. They have Honeycrisp as a parent, which gives them a crunch advantage in the eating experience,” Pepperl said.

Piñata is just gaining steam in Washington and is a later apple. It’s a winner year after year, and Pepperl expects the same this season. Stemilt also has a modern Honeycrisp program with highly developed strains, and is packing it under the premium Honeyhill brand.

See our Tour of New York Apple Companies slide show.

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Jim Allen, vice president of marketing for New York Apple Sales, and Rich Leous, general manager of Empire Fruit Growers, Wolcott, N.Y., pack and sell SnapDragon, a proprietary variety available only to members of the Crunch Time Apple Growers. By Amy Sowder

 

Back in New York, Empire Fruit Growers Cooperative in Wolcott has been packing EverCrisp for its first buyers in Texas. In mid-December, it had 950 bins of 20 bushels of EverCrisp. As the name suggests, it stays crunchy even after a long time in cold storage, and it’s almost as juicy as a peach. 

“That’s a really new, exciting apple for us. A lot of guys around are putting those in the ground. It’s a cross between a Honeycrisp and fuji,” said general manager Rich Leous. 

“It’s one of the nicer tasting apples, and it stores very well.” 

United Apple Sales, the marketing arm of packer H.H. Dobbins, Lyndonville, N.Y., is a proud supplier of SnapDragon and RubyFrost as well as Honeycrisp, but not all these great apples can succeed along with the mainstays, said United Apple sales manager Brett Baker.

“There’s starting to be a cannibalization of the market as the new varieties take up sales. It’s got to come from somewhere because the apple market is flat,” Baker said. 

So, he’s seeing a little less mcintosh and golden delicious.

“Everybody’s trying to come up with the new next greatest thing to have competitive advantage in our industry or across the produce aisle.”

— See how apple promotions will play out in 2019.

 
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