CHICAGO — Though rising costs and labor worries cloud the horizon, apples have big upside potential in the year 2020, a panel of experts said Aug. 20 at the U.S. Apple Outlook Conference.

The session, called “Apples 2020 — The Future is Here!” outlined anticipated advances in growing, marketing, sustainability and foodservice demand 10 years from today.

Addressing sustainability trends, Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., described the company’s work in recycling, composting, integrated pest management and using birds of prey to prevent fruit loss. He said all of those efforts stem from the core principles of the company’s Responsible Choice program, which began in 1989.

Pepperl said consumers want to know more about specific things companies are doing to help the environment.

“The consumers will embrace that message,” he said.

However, Pepperl advised that companies should only market sustainability if their top leadership is involved and committed to the principles.

“Market what you are doing, not what you wish you were doing,” Pepperl said.

Growing worries

Worries about labor availability may be most concerning to growers over the next decade, said Jim McFerson, manager of Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, Wenatchee.

However immigration reform is eventually addressed, McFerson said that growers will focus on reducing their expenses per box and try to maximize their revenues. He said growers are under pressure to pick the right varieties that match up with consumer preferences.

On the plus side, he said, the next 10 years should feature the introduction of many improved apple varieties by researchers.

Getting the right variety, the right strain of apple for a specific site will be a big focus for growers, he said.

In addition, growers are looking at investing in high-density, two-dimensional fruit wall systems in their orchards to maximize yield.

McFerson predicted more growers will invest in netting to protect their orchards from hail. Reductive materials to be put in orchards to direct light, such as white plastic laid down between rows of trees, will be relied on to improve the tree’s vigor and fruit development.

Reducing labor needs through mechanization is already an area of considerable research focus, he said. Mechanical thinners, robotic pruning, harvest platforms and mechanical pickers are some of the technology being tested today and likely to see greater commercial application by 2020.

Consumer trends

In a look at consumer trends, Steven Muro, with Fusion Marketing, Los Angeles, said the next 10 years will benefit apple consumption.

“You are in a fantastic spot,” he said.

By 2020, he said meal patterns will change to include less preparation, shorter planning cycles, less meat and more fresh produce.

Marketing to consumers in 2020 will include much more emphasis on mobile devices. He said there will be more than 3 billion cell phones used in the world by 2020 and many people will use them as personal passports and wallets.

Muro had good news for apple marketers about apple purchasing trends by consumers. Statistics from the NPD Group indicated that from 2001 to 2010, the number of people who consumed apples at least once every two weeks increased by 15%, from 29% in 2001 to 33.6% in 2010.

If that trend continues at pace until 2020, Muro said 40% of consumers would report eating apples at least once every two weeks.

By the year 2020, Muro said the share of the population that will be over 65 years old will be 16.5%, compared with 13% in 2010. Since older consumers are among the most frequent consumers of apples, Muro said the industry will stand to benefit.

“The opportunity for you now is start getting some of those people in their 40s and earlier to start eating apples sooner,” he said.

Capitalizing on restaurant sales

Todd Silberg, strategic sourcing lead for McDonald’s USA, Oak Brook, Ill., addressed the potential for apples in foodservice channels in 2020.

He said apples have been part of the McDonald’s menu since 2004, when Apple Dippers were launched. He said the quick-serve chain still sees growth potential in the item. He said Apple Dippers have shown year-over-year improvement since they were introduced.

Silberg said McDonald’s still seeks improvement in consistency and perhaps the addition of new flavors or varieties of apple slices.

“It would be nice to be able to put Honeycrisp apples in the Apple Dipper and sell it at a dollar,” he said.

However, he praised the fact that fresh-cut apples are a portable lower cost option that can be a healthy choice for consumers of all ages.

Silberg urged growers to be aware of sustainability and social accountability expectations, and he also said other commodities such as mangoes and peaches are competing with apples for attention.

Still, he said fresh-cut apples offered McDonald’s and other foodservice operations good potential, not only with sliced apples by themselves but also in wraps and salads.