In the apple market, Michigan has a pretty tight hold on the bag business.

But the state’s grower-shippers are looking to expand on that and grab a stronger foothold on the tray-packed side of things.

Often, retailers use apples from Michigan or other states east of the Mississippi for their bagged product, and bring in apples from the Northwest for their tray-packed product. Western apples tend to be larger than apples grown in Michigan or Eastern states.

Denise Donohue, executive director of the DeWitt-based Michigan Apple Committee, said there is a real interest from consumers for loose Michigan apples. The committee conducted focus groups over the winter, and one result from the research was the demand for tray packed Michigan apples.

“People are looking for more local tray packed apples,” Donohue said.

Previous research points to the idea that consumers who are buying bulk apples are not the same consumers who are buying bagged apples, Donohue said.

“People who are buying loose apples want to pick every apple for their families,” Donohue said. “They are really asking us to get our apples into tray packs.”

Younger generations are also more interested in selecting their own apples, Donohue said.

“We’re not advocating that stores need to discontinue any bagged sales. People who buy bagged buy for different reasons,” Donohue said.

To help spur this idea, the committee is offering a tray-pack rebate beginning in November on 10 varieties of apples.
“We’re trying to get retailers to try our tray packs,” Donohue said.

This season is a perfect one for the program because of how well the state’s apples are sizing up, Donohue said. The state generally gets its Honeycrisps and jonagolds in bulk bins at retail, but is trying to expand with fujis, cortlands, galas, golden delicious, red delicious and romes.

“We’ve been going that direction for three or four years, and with the crop this year, we can do it,” Donohue said.

Small sizes

With the generally smaller size of Michigan apples in comparison to apples from the Northwest, retailers can offer a smaller, more child-friendly apple that parents can select themselves.

What’s more, consumers in the Midwest and Eastern U.S. can buy apples from their side of the country, and also hand-select them, Donohue said.

Scott Swindeman, vice president and sales manager of Applewood Orchards Inc., Deerfield, Mich., said the company has been growing its tray business for years.

“Absolutely, there’s demand from the consumer and retailer for Michigan apples in trays,” Swindeman said.

Tom Curtis, president of Michigan Fresh Marketing, Belding, said his company still has more demand for bagged product. The company does a lot of 6-pound bags, he said, and some 8-pound, 3-pound and 5-pound.

“The bigger fruit we use in higher weight bags, and we still do traditional trays,” Curtis said.

The company is doing a lot more display ready cartons and open-top packaging, Curtis said.

Tom Pletcher, vice president of sales and marketing for Belding, Mich.-based Belleharvest Sales Inc., said most of his bagged apples come in the Michigan Apple Committee’s bags with the flavor meter on the packaging.

Bags will still be a strong product out of Michigan, though, with a lot of 2.5- to 3-inch apples on the market this year, said Nick Osmulski, sales manager for Traverse City, Mich.-based North Bay Produce Inc.

“But the tray pack continues to be a push for the industry,” Osmulski said. “We’re trying to get retailers taking part in the Midwest to look at the Midwest for more tray packs instead of just looking to Washington.”

Osmulski said Washington has a lot of big apples this year, so the state shouldn’t compete too much with Michigan on bagged apples.

Last year, Washington’s apple crop was made up of smaller apples.