New Wave Varieties Upset the Apple Cart

New Wave Varieties Upset the Apple Cart

A SnapDragon and a Ludacrisp apple.

SourceSean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

An explosion in new apple varieties is giving Americans more choice. But that could come with drawbacks. 

Lynd Fruit Farm in Pataskala, Ohio, is packed every autumn with folks who come to pick more apples than they know what to do with. The trees are laden with ripe fruit, ranging from supermarket staples such as Red Delicious and Gala to the locally developed Melrose and the heirloom variety Winesap. For the past three years, though, Lynd has also sold a new apple, EverCrisp, whose growers are already dreaming big.

Bill Dodd, president of the Midwest Apple Improvement Association (MAIA), the organization that developed EverCrisp in 2016, says this year he expects between 70,000 and 80,000 bushels to come from the 700,000 trees they’ve planted. By 2020, the number of planted trees is expected to reach one million. Sixty-year-old Dodd’s ambition is hardly unique. EverCrisp is among a slew of new commercial varieties developed and recently released in the U.S. that are dramatically expanding the types of apples that Americans will find in supermarkets in the months and years to come.

At the turn of the century, supermarkets globally had access to 150 apple varieties in all. Today, that number is 217, up 45 percent. In the last seven years, 25 new varieties have hit stores, 11 of them from the U.S. Once launched, these new apple brands take off quickly.

It’s an awesome time to be in the apple business.

Bill Dodd, Midwest Apple Improvement Association

SnapDragon apples from New York state started out on just eight acres in 2013. This year, it’s being produced on more than 570 acres, generating about 200,000 bushels. Rena Montedoro, vice president of sales and marketing at Crunch Time Apple Growers, which oversees the production of SnapDragon, says next year they’re going to have 601 productive acres and about 275,000 bushels. Another of their branded apples, RubyFrost, has seen a 21 percent increase in production volume since its 2013 market launch and produced about 275,000 bushels this year.

And in 2019, a new variety called Cosmic Crisp, developed and grown in Washington, is preparing to hit shelves in unprecedented numbers: its production is expected to reach 14 million bushels in volume in just five years.

Consumer preference is the central force driving this expanding menu of apples. People are now more cognizant of where their food comes from, and increasingly diverse food preferences are demanding a wider variety of choices, says Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain efficiencies at the Produce Marketing Association.

“You’re seeing apples go from being a fairly generic commodity dominated by … let’s say three to four varieties … into where there’s more and more complexity, there’s more and more choice,” says Treacy, who is also the current chairman of the board of the International Federation of Produce Standards, the organization of global food producers that issues the price look-up codes you’ll find on stickers attached to fresh fruits and vegetables at stores around the world.

(An EverCrisp orchard at VerSnyders Fruit. Credit: Kevin VerSnyder)

A pivotal moment for the modern apple market hit in the early 1990s when Honeycrisp, a Minnesota variety, was released at a price of $3 a pound. At the time, no retailer or grower believed a consumer would buy that over the cheaper, everyday apple variety, Red Delicious, which was available for 99 cents, says Treacy. They were wrong. The industry discovered customers were willing to spend a premium price on high-quality apples, a realization that changed the mindset of producers, says Dodd. Honeycrisp is now grown in France, New Zealand and Canada too.

“You have to be giving consumers an incredible eating experience [that] you’re not going to make if you’re still growing Red Delicious and Golden Delicious and some of the old ones,” says Dodd.

For many breeding programs, the emphasis is on creating apples that are juicy, crunchy and flavorful, can be stored longer and have higher disease resistance. EverCrisp apples stand out for their sweetness and ability to store well, while RubyFrost is slightly tarter and better for baking. But multiple major universities — such as the University of Minnesota, Washington State University and Cornell University — also have apple breeding programs. And these are increasingly exploring qualities like increased Vitamin C and reduced browning, red flesh and a wider variety of external appearances, says Susan Brown, professor and leader of Cornell’s apple breeding program.

But this expanding range of apples isn’t necessarily good for the future of the fruit, suggests John Bunker, who runs the Maine Heritage Orchard. Historically, apples were cooked instead of being eaten fresh, and Bunker says as apples have become more of a fresh-eating commodity, the varieties used for molasses, cider, sauces and butters are disappearing. One such apple is the Tinmouth, a sprightly cider apple that’s now extinct. Brown agrees that the industry is today “geared toward fresh [eating] markets because that’s most profitable.” She adds: “If it’s good for baking, that’s an added bonus.”

And because producers have seen what customers want in a fresh-eating apple, most new varieties have popular old-timers like Honeycrisp as parents. “So actually it looks like we’ve got more diversity,” says Bunker, “(but) the gene pool is getting smaller and smaller.”

Dwindling genetic diversity can affect consumers directly. Thomas Chao, who runs a collection of more than 7,000 apple varieties — most of them not for the consumer market — for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says that traits like disease resistance often don’t exist in domestic orchard apples. They can only be found in wild ones.

Once an apple makes it to the market, it faces a different battle: competing for shelf space. According to Treacy, the top 10 apple varieties monopolize around 92 percent of sales. Additionally, total apple consumption in the U.S. has remained almost steady, meaning as new brands come into the market, others — including varieties you may be familiar with — will be displaced.

Cosmic Crisp, for example, fits into the harvest window of Red Delicious, so farmers can replace those older trees with a variety that will make them more money, says Washington State University horticulture professor Kate Evans, who helped release Cosmic Crisp. “We can’t just keep producing new varieties and expecting that stores are going to just expand their apple section,” Evans said. “If (new varieties) are successful, then they will start to push out some of the older varieties.”

Success isn’t guaranteed. Customers are becoming more and more demanding, suggests Dodd. But that only makes the industry more exciting than ever to producers like him. Dodd is now helping oversee the production and release of new MAIA brands including Summerset, Rosalee, Sweet Zinger and Ludacrisp, expected to reach the markets by 2021.

“It’s an awesome time to be in the apple business,” Dodd said. “I wish I was 20 years younger.”

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