There’s a new apple on the horizon, and it goes by the name of ‘Cosmic Crisp.’ The apple, previously referred to as ‘WA 38,’ took center stage at the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) Annual Conference in the variety’s home state of Washington in February. The variety transition, cutting-edge production systems, and robotics were some of the many highlights of this conference’s sole focus on apples.
Neal Manly of Regal Fruit International, a variety management affiliate of Willow Drive Nursery, dubbed ‘Cosmic Crisp’ a beast, for taking up the lion’s share of nursery orders in the next few years — 40% by 2018 — eclipsing ‘Honeycrisp,’ ‘Fuji’ ‘Gala,’ and ‘Cripps Pink’ according to data he compiled from the four major nurseries in Washington State. He estimates all other managed varieties will make up 34.4% of nursery orders in that same year.
Manly estimates there will be 12 million ‘Cosmic Crisp’ trees planted within the next three to four years.
Expectations for ‘Cosmic Crisp’ are obviously high within the Washington apple industry, but what is of interest is how growers are shifting their focus from the traditional varieties consumers and marketers are familiar with and staking a claim to the next generation of apples.
“I’ve joined the thundering herd,” Mike Robinson of BMR Orchards in Royal City told tourgoers during a stop at his orchard. Robinson and his peers recognize the importance of being on the front line of production. “I want to capture the ‘Cosmic Crisp’ premium before the other 7 million [trees] catch up.”
Goodbye Commodity Varieties
As growers in Washington bet big on ‘Cosmic Crisp,’ varieties that have been hit or miss as far as quality — ‘Honeycrisp’ in particular — will likely begin to taper off. Manly says ‘Honeycrisp,’ which made up 35% of all new plantings in 2016, will be as low as 12.5% of new plantings as soon as next year.
Robinson recognizes the shift in production — as many growers in Washington State have.
“I don’t believe in perpetual motion,” he said of the continued growth in ‘Honeycrisp’ revenue. “The big difference is that there are guys that are good at it and there are those that aren’t.”
While the challenges of growing Honeycrisp are no secret to growers, the reasons to transition to new managed varieties are often driven by simple economics.
Tour-goers visited McDougall & Sons Legacy Orchard in East Wenatchee, WA, where Scott McDougall sees his future in high-dollar varieties, especially with the cost per acre he put into his Legacy planting — a steep V system with 2-feet by 12-feet planting, and a 12-foot drive row. He says his steep V has about 1,815 trees to the acre, which he estimates cost about $60,000 an acre, including two years of pre-production costs years.
“We can’t afford to be planting commodity varieties,” he said.
“We don’t think our price will hold,” McDougall says of ‘Honeycrisp,’ which is expected to have 15 to 20 million more trees coming into production in the next few years. “We know prices are going to come down.”
Not Just ‘Cosmic Crisp’
New varieties such as ‘Kanzi,’ ‘SugarBee,’ ‘SweeTango,’ ‘Lady Alice,’ ‘Junami,’ ‘Sunrise Magic,’ ‘Pinata,’ ‘Sweetie,’ and ‘Koru’ are also vying for market space, but they’ll have to out-muscle ‘Cosmic Crisp.’
Manly says with these new varieties coming into focus, growers may shift to a 10- to 15-year cycle of orchard renewal, pulling out unprofitable varieties much sooner, and going with a managed variety that offers a higher, faster return on investment.
At Robison Orchards Inc. in Chelan, WA, Jake Robison, a fourth-generation grower, is two years into a transition plan to take over his family’s orchard. Robison Orchards Inc. is only 125 acres, but they have identified how to get high-value varieties in order to remain profitable.
“The higher value the better,” he said.“We’re always looking for the next big thing that would make us a lot of money.”
Robison Orchard has ‘Jazz,’ ‘Envy,’ and Chelan Fresh’s ‘SugarBee.’
The Robison family has taken the approach of grafting over some of the varieties losing share in the market, such as the standard ‘Gala,’ ‘Granny Smith,’ ‘Golden Delicious,’ ‘Braeburn,’ and ‘Red Delicious,’ with newer varieties like ‘Envy.’
Jim Divis, too, has turned his focus to high-value varieties such as ‘Pazazz’ and ‘Pacific Rose’ in his Brewster, WA, orchard.
“When you eat and measure ‘Pazazz’ at harvest, it has more sugar and acid than ‘Honeycrisp,’” Divis says. He also notes he has not seen bitter pit in ‘Pazazz,’ but the flesh calcium content is about 10 times that of ‘Honeycrisp.’