Champagne apple with a diva attitude
The most sought-after apple in the United States, consumers are prepared to pay two to three times the prices of other varieties for Honeycrisp's well balanced sweet-tart taste and explosively crisp, juicy texture.
Just one of Honeycrisp's diva demands is its growing location, further south than New Zealand's traditional pipfruit growing areas. Bred by the University of Minnesota, Honeycrisp is a genuine cool climate variety, grown around the 45th parallel. In New Zealand, its ideal location is just north of Timaru, close to the coast, where Honeycrisp plantings are expected to total almost 300 hectares in the next four to five years.
The South Canterbury development is being driven by US investors, who have bought land to plant Honeycrisp orchards, as well as some local growers, notably Honeycrisp pioneers, brothers Danny and Peter Bennett of Waipopo Orchards and Paul Geaney and family.
Honeycrisp production is aimed squarely at export to the US and the top-end retail market, so highest quality is allimportant. Tight control over quality and the marketing chain are held by Honeycrisp NZ Ltd, which owns the licensing rights to the variety in this country and controlled its export under the registered trademark “Honeycrunch”. Directors of Honeycrisp NZ Ltd are Cambridge nurseryman Andy McGrath, South Canterbury orchardists Danny and Peter Bennett and Murray Linnell of fruit marketer Fruit 2U in Hastings. Honeycrisp out-earns any other export apple grown in New Zealand. In the US it sells for about US$80 a carton, compared with other varieties which are about US$30 a carton.
About 130ha in South Canterbury is planted in Honeycrisp to date, an area expected to expand to 280ha by 2018-19, said Andy McGrath.
“It's virtually all new orchard area, so it's the only expansion in the pipfruit industry that I'm aware of. In essence, we are creating a small, but significant new growing area.” This would also generate the need for packing facilities, cool storage and other service providers.
In addition to the 130ha already planted, another 50ha to 80ha was well through the planning process. “So we are about two-thirds of the way through projected plantings.
“It is a planned expansion. When we finish planting what we want, we will stop. Part of getting a super premium price is to have one case of apples too few, rather than one case too many.
“All these controlled production systems are complex, but highly organised.
“To get the best out of the variety, it needs to grow in a very narrow geographic area. We are now selecting and planting in a planned manner to produce in that area only.”
A weak tree, it needs a good structure. Planting rates are 1700 trees/ha, with trees trained on wires to 3.6m.
Some successful plantings had also been carried out in Central Otago, but trials are being discontinued in Nelson as fruit quality there was not reliably meeting specifications.
Honeycrisp may be a market favourite and the champagne of apples, but it comes with a diva temperament.
A 100ha block being planted in four stages involves a USNZ investor split, with US investors having the majority share. These orchards, including MA Orchards, will be operated by Timaru Orchards, a partnership which includes American investors and Andy McGrath. “US investors are buying land and planting it. The principals are fruit growers in the US and vertically integrated.
“So we are becoming the southern hemisphere leg of their business.”
Counter-season demand from American buyers could exceed 1m cartons, and while New Zealand may not supply all of this, local export volumes are expected to climb steadily to 1m cartons over the next few years. This year, 1100 tonnes of Honeycrisp was exported to the US, double the previous year. Expected volumes this coming season are 2600 tonnes “if we escape the hail”.
While cooler climates tend to grow smaller fruit, Honeycrisp is a big-sized apple. “It is a difficult apple to grow and produce well and get to the market in good order at very high quality. But if you do it the rewards are very high. It is no exaggeration to say double the returns of any other apple.” This was with the exception of Koru, another Andy McGrath-licensed variety.
“We got up to $125 a carton this year, but we had a lot of issues, with significant repacking in the marketplace.”
“You name a defect, it has it – bitter pit, soft scald and senescent breakdowns. It is not an easy piece of fruit to handle postharvest.” Honeycrisp was considered a vulnerable variety that requires a strict cool chain regime from picking to storing at the orchard through to the final distribution on supermarket shelves.
“Honeycrisp doesn't store well, so we can come into the US off-season market with very high quality product and a very high quality price.”
A large amount of scientific harvest, post-harvest and shipping trial work has been done here and overseas.
“Honeycrisp has a number of problems that can appear from time to time and because they are not consistently there noone has been able to get their head around it. It's not a Gala or Braeburn. It is a difficult apple to manage.
“I think we are close to working out what we are doing right and wrong and don't expect to have a recurrence of last season's problems.
“Even with these problems it still returns more than any other apple. Once we graded the problems out we got very good returns. So the future is particularly bright,” said Andy.
Tested in New Zealand since the late 1990s, the oldest commercial Honeycrisp trees are around seven years old. South Canterbury production was higher than in the US. One of its faults, biennial production, had not been observed in New Zealand.