SPARTA, Mich. — Thanks to new plantings, Michigan production is on the rise, but not all varieties will be rising equally, and some will likely hold steady or even decline, grower-shippers, packers, officials and other industry members said.
“There are a lot of new galas, Honeycrisps, jonagolds and fujis,” said Pat Chase, salesman for Jack Brown Produce Inc.
Of those four, one clearly stands out above the rest, said John Schaefer, Jack Brown’s president.
“Honeycrisp growth is kind of exponential,” he said.
To the tune of about 33% more versus 2011, Chase said.
When the Lansing-based Michigan Apple Committee does apple taste tests, Michigan-grown Honeycrisps almost invariably come out on top, said Diane Smith, the committee’s executive director.
“We grow a great Honeycrisp here,” she said. “Our climate lends itself to it.”
Keeping customers satisfied
Switching production to varieties consumers want is a way for shippers to transcend the produce category, something Belding-based BelleHarvest Sales Inc. is trying to achieve, said Chris Sandwick, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.
“We want to compete with Frito-Lay and Mars,” Sandwick said. “I don’t look at other packers as our competition.”
Consistency is what keeps people coming back to their favorite candy bar or bag of potato chips, Sandwick said. BelleHarvest wants to do the same for apples, and Honeycrisps and other newer varieties will play a crucial role.
“Our Honeycrisp portfolio is increasing, and the key is to make sure we have the right ones,” he said.
“It’s almost not even fair to compare them with other apple varieties.”
Because of their mushrooming popularity, Honeycrisps are being grown everywhere. Shippers like BelleHarvest believe they can maintain a competitive edge by shipping only the best ones.
Honeycrisps have become so valuable, pickers working for Sparta, Mich.-based Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc. now clip the stems of all Honeycrisps so they don’t puncture other Honeycrisps in transit, said Don Armock, the company’s president.
Despite Honeycrisps’ starring role in the deal, galas will quietly overtake red delicious this year as the top-volume variety, said Mitch Brinks, Jack Brown salesman.
Red delicious production will likely remain static, but don’t count the venerable variety out anytime soon, Brinks said.
“Pretty much all of our customers still use reds,” he said. “It’s still a very important variety.”
Romes and idareds are among the older varieties that continue to decline in volume for Jack Brown, Chase said.
Michigan growers can still grow a great rome, Schaefer said, but there’s only so many varieties growers can grow.
“I’d like to see 500 feet (of retail space) devoted to apples, but it’s not practical,” he said. “The category’s getting pretty crowded.”
Honeycrisps, galas and fujis may get more of the limelight, but don’t forget jonagolds, said Don Armock, president of Sparta, Mich.-based Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc.
“We grow a really good jonagold here, and we have strains now that we really like,” he said.
Many consumers who used to not like jonagolds, do now, Armock said.
That said, Riveridge is also boosting Honeycrisp, gala and fuji production. Armock also reported increased production of the Pink Lady and, to a lesser extent, braeburns. Riveridge has also had success with new strains of mcintoshes.
Like other companies, Belding-based All Fresh GPS expects to ship more galas, Honeycrisp, jonagolds and fujis this season, said Tom Curtis, the company’s president.
All Fresh GPS also looks forward to greater volumes of Kiku and Kanzi proprietary varieties, as well as SweeTangos, Curtis said.
“We’ll have a pretty good crops of SweeTangos,” he said. “It’s quite a considerable jump over 2011.”
All Fresh GPS expects to market fewer jonathans and golden delicious in coming years, but its red delicious volumes should remain fairly steady, Curtis said.
Hillsdale-based Glei’s Inc.’s orchards are producing more fujis, galas and Honeycrisps and fewer red delicious and mcintoshes, said Damon Glei, partner.
The company is focusing on plantings that are more labor-efficient, Glei said.
The trees the company is planting now, for instance, are more often 10 or 11 feet tall instead of 16 or 18 feet, the size of older trees.
Glei’s also purchased a platform to make it even easier for the crop to be harvested.