The Changing Market
Given that it’s such a challenging variety to grow, there’s only one reason growers continue to stick with it — the returns.
“Growers are still obviously attracted to Honeycrisp because it’s currently or it has been over the last few years by far one of the most profitable varieties to grow,” says Allen.
With the profitability of this variety, growers are ramping up production. Both Allen and Turner see production doubling in the next four years. Estimates of 12,000,000 cartons by 2018-2019 are forecast. This is up from 3,158,000 in 2010-2011, according to the Washington Apple Commission.
“It will probably increase by 150%, maybe 200% over the next 10 years,” says Allen.
Both Allen and Turner see the risk if growers rush to be the first to hit the market.
“There is a very real temptation to be first to market each autumn and get those new crop high prices,” Turner says. “In recent seasons, we’ve seen green, immature fruit hit retail that simply doesn’t eat well.”
If consumers have an unpleasant eating experience, they will likely turn their preferences elsewhere.
“I’ve heard one large grower call it ‘Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs,’” says Turner. “We cannot disappoint a single consumer, we will need every one of them loving their Honeycrisp and buying even more a few years from now.”
Although production has increased, growers have not met the demand for year-round availability. The market for Honeycrisp is changing, though.
“Until recently, Honeycrisp prices remained firm even when supplies increased because it was getting wider distribution and staying on the market longer,” says Desmond O’Rourke, publisher of the World Apple Report. “The support for the Honeycrisp prices from increased distribution is gradually being eroded.”
O’Rourke says a key indicator for this is premium payouts in 2013-2014 vs. the same time period this season.
“Last year, Honeycrisp prices from Washington State averaged about $54 per 40-lb box at FOB for the September-December period,” says Desmond O’Rourke. “For the same period this year, they averaged about $43, a 20% decrease. For the same period, Honeycrisp shipments from Washington State were up about 50%.”
The Future Of Honeycrisp
“The era of sky high Honeycrisp prices is over. They still sell at a very nice premium to most varieties,” O’Rourke says.
He says as Honeycrisp becomes more readily available, high-income consumers will shift their preference to other premium varieties.
With this change in the market Allen says he knows some large growers who are not adding more Honeycrisp acres.
“There are several growers that I know of in Washington state that have fairly significant plantings that have indicated to me that they are not going to plant anymore. The reason being it’s such a difficult variety to grow, a lot of strain on the management system in terms of trying to get it picked properly, that they simply don’t think they can properly manage further increases in production on their own operations.”
However with the market changing Boyer does see a bright spot with Honeycrisp.
First, Honeycrisp has singlehandedly introduced a wide span of consumers to the characteristics of a modern eating apple — crunch, sweetness, flavors, eye appeal, etc.
“People are really starting to understand what a really great eating apple experience is,” he says. “There’s a lot of great apple varieties coming down the road that our customers are going to walk in to a store in the future, look at a shelf and almost every single apple on there is going to be a great eating experience.”
Second, the changing market prices for Honeycrisp might help spread the demand for the variety.
“I talked to people that said ‘can you believe that Honeycrisp is going for $1.99 a pound and the rest of the other fruit is $0.99 a pound,’” he says. “They look at it like fuel prices (going down). Does that make the consumer consume more? I think so.”
Turner says that although growers might eye the large crop as the beginning of the end, grocers, on the other hand, see large numbers as a good thing.
“Retailers are still very excited about Honeycrisp — I had one retailer tell me he thinks we should increase our rate of new planting,” he says.
And, there are still people who haven’t tasted a Honeycrisp yet. But when they do, they’ll come back for more.
“The bright side is simply that 8 out of 10 people if given a high-quality Honeycrisp think it’s absolutely the best apple they’ve ever eaten and they want more,” Allen says.
Despite all the negatives of Honeycrisp, most growers, like Boyer acknowledge that Honeycrisp is a must-have.
“It’s always a love-hate relationship with Honeycrisp. What would you do without it? You just can’t live without it,” he says.
The returns Boyer and his family received from Honeycrisp allowed them to reinvest back into their orchard, increase high density plantings, build cold storage facilities and purchase new equipment.
“Before Honeycrisp came around, we weren’t riding around with brand new tractors, brand new sprayers. Before Honeycrisp came around, we weren’t putting up cold storage buildings. We weren’t planting high density because our margins were kind of small,” he says.