The curse of the Hon­ey­crisp ap­ple

The Star Malaysia - StarBiz - - BizWealth - By DEENA SHANKER and LY­DIA MULVANY

BITE into a Hon­ey­crisp ap­ple and you un­der­stand why con­sumers are will­ing to pay so much for a piece of fruit: the crunch.

That’s no ac­ci­dent. In the pre-Hon­ey­crisp era, ap­ples had just two tex­tures: “soft and mealy (that no­body liked), and then we had the good ap­ples, the hard, crisp and dense,” said David Bed­ford, one of the orig­i­nal breed­ers of the Hon­ey­crisp.

Un­like the vast ma­jor­ity of mod­ern com­mer­cial pro­duce, the Hon­ey­crisp ap­ple wasn’t bred to grow, store or ship well. It was bred for taste: crisp, with bal­anced sweet­ness and acid­ity. Though it suc­ceeded be­yond any­one’s wildest dreams, along the way it be­came a night­mare for some pro­duc­ers, forc­ing small North­east­ern grow­ers to com­pete with their mas­sive, cli­mat­i­cally ad­van­taged coun­ter­parts on the West Coast.

The Hon­ey­crisp wasn’t an im­me­di­ate suc­cess. The orig­i­nal tree, known of­fi­cially as MN1711, was dis­carded in 1977 over con­cerns about its win­ter har­di­ness. But Bed­ford, who joined the team in 1979, found four small clones that had mirac­u­lously es­caped the garbage and de­cided to see if they’d yield fruit. “In 1983,” Bed­ford wrote in an email, “those small trees bore a few amaz­ing fruit and the rest is his­tory.”

The Hon­ey­crisp va­ri­ety is now so pop­u­lar, con­sumers will spend three times the cost of other ap­ples to ex­pe­ri­ence it.

Pro­duc­tion of Hon­ey­crisps has dou­bled over the last four years, mak­ing it the fifth most-grown va­ri­ety, ac­cord­ing to Mark Seetin, di­rec­tor of reg­u­la­tory and in­dus­try af­fairs at the US Ap­ple As­so­ci­a­tion. But not ev­ery­one is a fan. Those who pro­duce Hon­ey­crisps of­ten have the most cut­ting words for it.

“The first chal­lenge is con­trol­ling its vigour,” said Brenda Briggs of Rice Fruit Co, which has been sell­ing ap­ples out of Adams County, Penn­syl­va­nia, for more than 100 years. Grow­ers, she ex­plains, have to train the trees so that their branches don’t get too tall too fast, with leaves that block the sun­light from the ap­ples below.

The fruit is also vul­ner­a­ble to bit­ter pit-small, sunken brown spots that sully an oth­er­wise per­fect orb. The flaw is a re­sult of the trees’ in­abil­ity to prop­erly take up cal­cium from the soil. Grow­ers are forced to spray their or­chards with fo­liar cal­cium to boost their in­take, but it’s not al­ways enough.

Size can also be an is­sue. “The fruit tends to grow very big,” said Mark Ni­chol­son of New York’s Red Jacket Or­chards, whose busi­ness in­cludes about 400 acres ded­i­cated to ap­ples. “That’s good, but at a cer­tain point the con­sumer doesn’t want to buy an ap­ple the size of a grapefruit.”

The thin skin that makes those first bites so juicy is also very del­i­cate and eas­ily sun­burned. Birds love Hon­ey­crisps more than other ap­ples, forc­ing grow­ers to buy and in­stall net­ting to keep them away.

Even if a pro­ducer man­ages to grow a de­cent crop of Hon­ey­crisps, har­vest­ing and stor­age come with ad­di­tional hur­dles. The va­ri­ety is so del­i­cate that the stems have to be clipped off so the ap­ples don’t tear each other. And while other ap­ples can go right from tree to cold stor­age, Hon­ey­crisps must first spend 5-10 days be­ing “tem­pered” at a mild tem­per­a­ture be­fore they can be re­frig­er­ated.

“It re­quires grow­ers to do a lot more work,” Ni­chol­son said. In the end, only 55% to 60% of the fruit makes it to re­tail, Seetin said.

It also means that even though Hon­ey­crisps cost more than dou­ble the price of Red and Golden De­li­cious ap­ples-at a na­tional av­er­age of US$2.19 a pound for the month of Oc­to­ber-pro­duc­ers aren’t rak­ing it in. “There’s a higher in­vest­ment and pro­duc­tion cost in places that are not Min­nesota,” where the Hon­ey­crisp was orig­i­nally bred, said Karina Gallardo, an agri­cul­tural econ­o­mist at Wash­ing­ton State Univer­sity.

So why do farm­ers put up with the has­sle? They sim­ply don’t have a choice.

The de­mand for this one ap­ple ex­ceeds sup­ply – it’s all con­sumers, and there­fore super­mar­kets, want. So grow­ers are plant­ing with al­most reck­less aban­don, pulling out old va­ri­eties, like the tired Red De­li­cious, and putting in Hon­ey­crisp trees – even in places where they don’t grow well.

For the mas­sive West Coast or­chards, this isn’t much of a prob­lem. But on the East Coast, which has smaller or­chards and wet weather that makes or­ganic grow­ing im­pos­si­ble, the chal­lenge is more acute. “There’s a lot of con­cen­tra­tion of ap­ple grow­ing in the one place (Wash­ing­ton), and that makes it eas­ier for those grow­ers to sup­ply big re­tail­ers,” said Su­san Futrell, au­thor of Good Ap­ples: Be­hind Every Bite and di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing at Red Tomato, a Mas­sachusetts-based non-profit dis­trib­u­tor for a net­work of over 40 whole­sale grow­ers.

“De­ci­sions about what va­ri­eties to carry are get­ting made by fewer and fewer peo­ple and fur­ther away from where peo­ple are buy­ing the ap­ples.”

Even for such re­tail­ers as Whole Foods Mar­ket and FreshDirect, both of which have ro­bust lo­cal pro­grams, sourc­ing from the West Coast to sell in the East is in­evitable if they want to carry the or­ganic ver­sion of their most pop­u­lar ap­ple.

Mean­while, ev­ery­one is ner­vously wait­ing for the day when the sup­ply-de­mand equi­lib­rium brings sticker prices down far enough that grow­ing the Hon­ey­crisp no longer makes eco­nomic sense.

But it’s not likely to hap­pen soon, said Eric Rama, head of agri­cul­tural re­search at MetLife Inc. Even though pro­duc­tion is in­creas­ing at a rapid pace, de­mand for premium ap­ples isn’t wan­ing. Re­tail prices, though slightly lower than last year’s, have stayed at ap­peal­ing heights for farm­ers and prob­a­bly won’t sink in the fore­see­able fu­ture, he said.

Still, the in­dus­try is on the look­out for the next Hon­ey­crisp. Some­thing just as de­li­cious, but less trou­ble­some to cul­ti­vate.

Broetje Or­chards in Prescott, Wash­ing­ton, is de­vot­ing 10% of its 7,000 acres to the non-brown­ing Opal, Paul Esvelt, the or­chard’s post har­vest man­ager, told Bloomberg at a New York City event to pro­mote the fruit. That’s the same amount of space the grower sets aside for the Hon­ey­crisp. Esvelt ex­pects 3% growth for the Opal next year, while Hon­ey­crisp acreage will re­main stag­nant.

Wash­ing­ton State Univer­sity plans to in­tro­duce the Cos­mic Crisp as early as next year, said Gallardo. Tangy, sweet and-as the name im­plies-crispy, the ap­ple could ac­count for 5% to 10% of the state’s pro­duc­tion.

Josh Mor­gen­thau of Fishkill Farms in New York, mean­while, would like to see more credit given to the Eso­pus Spitzen­burg, a New York orig­i­nal known for its spicy pro­file and, some say, a par­tic­u­lar fa­vorite of Thomas Jef­fer­son’s.

De­spite the ex­tra work, grow­ers will keep plant­ing, pick­ing and sell­ing the Hon­ey­crisp, as long as the core eco­nomics makes sense.

“If they aren’t mak­ing money,” said Bed­ford, “I’d be the first to tell them to pull it out.” — Bloomberg

Big is not al­ways good: A trader re­ar­rang­ing Hon­ey­crisp ap­ples at the B&B Fruit Stand in East We­natchee, Wash­ing­ton. Size can be an is­sue as the fruit tends to grow very big. — Reuters

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