Why Apple Growers Are Feeling Uneasy

One constant in the five years since the first American Fruit Grower State of the Industry survey was that apple and pear growers, especially apples, were gung-ho about the future. Production plans were always upbeat, every year seemingly building on the last, but there were definitely some chinks in the armor appearing this year.

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In the past, the percentage of pome fruit growers saying they planned to decrease acreage in the coming year was always in the single digits. But this year, for the first time, that number was in the double digits at just more than 13%. Not a huge change, perhaps, but it seems to be an indicator, especially when other numbers from this year’s survey are factored in.

For example, in past years, the percentage of growers indicating they planned to increase production in the coming year was usually about the same as the percentage of growers who planned to stand pat, sometimes exceeding it. But not this year.

In this year’s survey, the percentage of growers planning to increase production barely exceeded one-third of the total. And more than half the growers who responded indicated they plan to stay the same in 2020. Certainly not doom and gloom, and apples in particular are trending slightly better, as the numbers were weighed down by uncertainty about pears.

REGIONAL SPLITS

There’s no question the concerns about trade/tariffs weighed heavily, as has the news that a huge apple crop was harvested this past year in Washington, which produces more than two-thirds of the nation’s total. But a lot of the attention has been on new varieties, and rightly so as the landscape is changing so much this year. On Dec. 1, Washington growers began hitting the store shelves with ‘Cosmic Crisp,’ a variety that can only be grown in that state, with many, many more coming in 2020.

That exclusivity has definitely hit a nerve with growers. A lot of comments were along these lines: “The club varieties limited to one state will make it hard on the rest of us who have good quality apple varieties but without the marketing force behind them.”

Others, such as this Michigan grower, were much more specific.

“I think this new system of releasing varieties through club or limiting production to a specific state is terrible for our industry. Not clear when apple growers formed teams, and if your team happens to include a land grant university developing new apple varieties, you stand to win. We are in Michigan and our land grant university, Michigan State University, provides excellent science to the apple industry. Should we follow the example and limit apple research developed by MSU to Michigan growers? That is not a future where we all win, but it is a future being pushed by both Washington and Minnesota.”

Another grower agreed about regionally exclusive varieties.

“Don’t think much of them as only certain states/big growers can get them. We inform our many retail customers of this and encourage them not to purchase these until all quality growers can grow them, regardless of state or size. Many of us who deal with the public directly will be stepping this up in 2020.”

Other growers were concerned about ‘Cosmic Crisp’ in particular.

“In general, I do not agree with club varieties and believe that it does more harm than good to have so many choices. It is unnerving to hear what Washington growers are doing with the new variety, ‘Cosmic Crisp,’ the acreage that is going to come into production, and the marketing that will go behind it. I haven’t tasted ‘Cosmic Crisp,’ so I can only hope that it is more appealing than ‘Red Delicious’/‘Golden Delicious’ (the low-end apples that do not taste good). It is good to up their game in regard to taste and quality, but don’t expect ‘Honeycrisp’ prices for a mainstream apple. Ultimately, consumers will still demand apples at the same price structures (low, medium, high). You aren’t going to just get rid of all low/medium-priced apples.”

Of course, still other growers remain confident about the club varieties, especially ‘Cosmic Crisp.’ One Washington grower summed up his confidence in the future with just three words: “Have ‘Cosmic Crisp.’”

TOO MANY VARIETIES?

A lot of growers are concerned about the new club apples because they said they are unproven and just add to an already crowded selection. Here’s a typical response: “We are not investing in new varieties that might not sell. It was different when we first planned ‘Honeycrisp’ because there weren’t any new apples. Now, there are too may new varieties.”

Or this: “There are a lot of them, but there is only shelf space for a few of them in stores. Many will fail, and it is hard to know which the right answer is to plant.”

For many growers, there are just too many unknowns.

“The new varieties aren’t being produced enough to maintain adequate supply through the seasons, and they haven’t been cultivated long enough to fully understand the growing and storage characteristics compared to older varieties. Some new varieties are very good, and others are simply not. Club varieties take away opportunities for better growers that don’t have the funds to invest in a “maybe.” That being said, heirloom varieties aren’t grown commercially for a reason.”

Finally, one grower said it’s definitely not just about the growing: “New varieties are all very good eating, and the winners and losers will come down to how good your marketing is.”


Growers Disagree on Future of Pears

There couldn’t have been more of a split on how growers see pear production in the coming years. Just more than one third of growers think the industry will level off. Of the remainder, they were almost equally split. While 30% said they think the industry will grow in the future, nearly as many, 28%, said they thought it would decline.

Predictably, grower comments reflected this trepidation.

“Pears are our largest crop by acreage and volume. Pears are very difficult to get right many times, and the public is turned off when they don’t ripen correctly or have internal breakdown issues. Many growers don’t take the time to manage this correctly.”

It’s also tough in that pears are one of the few crops you can’t eat right from the tree.

“Pears are a fruit you have to plan to eat. They need to be ripened at home. It seems that most new consumers are looking for more of a ready-to-eat variety.”

However, pears are also one of the fruits highest in fiber, and perhaps selling at the retail level is not the answer, suggests one grower.

“People are leaning toward eating healthier, so more pears will be eaten, I’d assume. Also, if they online-market correctly, they can even make more money by selling direct to consumer and creating a larger market and more money to invest into production.”


Researchers Give Their Two Cents Worth

John Clements, Extension Tree Fruit Specialist, University of Massachusetts: “Seems to me, the Eastern wholesale apple industry is engaged in a struggle and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. I see more orchards of old varieties — ‘Macs,’ ‘Cortlands,’ etc. — being pulled out as trying to sell those apples is becoming tough, even next to impossible. What’s the Eastern apple industry’s answer to ‘Cosmic Crisp?’ Do we need one? ‘Evercrisp?’ Too bad it does not shine in appearance. Healthy living and buy local should be driving increased sales of apples, but that does not appear to be the case. Too many (better) choices in the produce aisle? And retailers are engaged in blood sport with sales desks! On the bright side, in my neck of the woods, direct market, U-pick, and agritainment remain strong, as long as the weekend weather is good in September and October. And it helps if the Patriots don’t play on Sunday afternoon! Did I tell you ‘Cosmic Crisp’ is going to replace ‘Red Delicious’ on the shelf? And it rightfully should!”

Bill Shane, Tree Fruit Specialist, Michigan State University Extension: “We will see continued decline of apple acreage used for traditional processing uses such as apple slices, sauce, and juice. Medium- to smaller-scale apple growers will gravitate to growing specialty apple varieties for high-end fresh markets and craft hard ciders.”