Finicky. Biennial. Heat intolerant. Bruises easily. Tough to store. If these characteristics were listed for any apple cultivar being developed, it wouldn’t leave the research station.
But this isn’t just any research cultivar. It’s Honeycrisp.
Ask any grower whether they enjoy the experience of growing Honeycrisp year in and year out and they’ll likely tell you no. But it’s a necessary evil. Without Honeycrisp — one of the most profitable varieties to have in an orchard — many growers believe they can’t stay competitive.
Despite its sweet name and popularity in the market, there’s a dark side to America’s darling apple.
“It is by far and away the most difficult variety I’ve ever grown,” says Bruce Allen, president of Columbia Reach Pack in Yakima, WA.
A Challenge To Grow
There are so many nuances to successfully growing Honeycrisp, the choices a grower makes will have a proportionally greater impact how Honeycrisp will behave. The variety requires more attention and inputs to get a desired yield.
“It wants to crop too early, and it can runt out,” says Jennifer DeEll, fresh market quality program leader of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “(It has) brittle wood which requires extra support, and the tree will break off at whatever height your post is.”
Rootstock choice impacts how productive the variety will be. Since it is a low-vigor cultivar, larger rootstocks can cause Honeycrisp to become biennial bearing. DeEll says some rootstocks also cause trees to break off or cause nutrient deficiencies. Hand thinning is a necessity and over cropping can produce small fruit and cause the tree to become biennial bearing.
Honeycrisp is very susceptible to black rot, powdery mildew, and fire blight. Heat and sunburn are also issues with Honeycrisp. Fruit grows on the larger size, especially in early years.
A Challenge To Harvest And Store
“Honeycrisp has thin skin, which is easily punctured. This can lead to more storage rots going into retail,” says DeEll.
Many growers choose to stem-clip apples and gently place them in bins to prevent bruising, says Bruce Turner, national marketing representative for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers. This extra precaution can double harvest costs, though.
Honeycrisp’s propensity to grow big can also lead to bitter pit. The disorder may be present at harvest, but will worsen as the apples are stored.
“You can lose anywhere from 20% to 30% of your crop when it’s hanging on the trees just with bitter pit,” says Mark Boyer of Ridgetop Orchards, LLC, in Fishertown, PA. “There’s always that fine line between having too much a crop to make it go biennial bearing or too [small] of a crop that you can have a lot of bitter pit.”
A grower’s best defense against bitter pit is calcium sprays, DeEll says.
As if growers didn’t have enough trouble on their hands with Honeycrisp during the growing season, the variety is also prone to physiological disorders such as soft scald and soggy breakdown. CA storing is problematic, too because it is very sensitive to chilling and carbon dioxide.
“Conditioning the fruit prior to cold storage is extremely important. Holding at 10°C for seven days can substantially reduce soft scald and soggy breakdown during subsequent cold storage at 3°C,” DeEll says. “Warmer temperatures for conditioning can also aggravate bitter pit development, so 10°C seems to be the best compromise for these disorders.”
Boyer says the ironic thing about needing to precondition is the apples that should be stored are your first picks, but that is when the markets are most favorable. He said his family has to wage the war on bitter pit in the orchard to prevent losses in storage. And, storage disorders affect packouts.
“You spend a lot of time and money on the management of the harvest of it so you’re getting a nice quality Honeycrisp to put out there. Then you pack it,” Boyer says. But if you’re storing it, then your third picking or a later picking of Honeycrisp is more susceptible to soggy breakdown.”