photo by John Clements, University of Massachusetts
Win Cowgill, horticulturist at Rutgers University and area fruit agent located in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, is working on a project to help growers choose varieties.
He and Jon Clements at University of Massachusetts collaborated for the last three growing seasons creating a Web site called Appletesters.net. They hope it will help growers make good variety choices for their orchards—and help their neighbors do the same.
Cowgill’s apple grower clientele are mostly direct marketers—growers who meet the public face to face and can see customer satisfaction with an apple variety in a direct and personal way. While wholesale growers have to rely on less direct feedback, the same general principles apply as they try to appeal to consumers.
Here are five things Cowgill recommends that growers consider:
Choose killer varieties. Luckily, growers need to plant several varieties, so they need not choose just one from the ever-growing list of great-tasting apples. Cowgill credits Ohio grower Mitch Lynd with the “killer variety” concept. Lynd, and growers like him who sell directly to customers at a farm market or run pick-your-own operations, need one great variety every weekend from Labor Day to Halloween.
They also need diversity each week. It is not unusual for direct marketers to have 15 or 20 apple varieties in their orchard.
Consumers have made their desires fairly clear—most like apples with crunch and crispness, good flavor and sweetness. However, they are still led by their eyeballs as well as their taste buds, and are drawn to red apples unless well trained with taste testing.
Time of ripening. Whether selecting for direct sales or just planning the harvest workload, growers need varieties that span the season, a key consideration in pick-your-own (PYO) marketing.
“Varieties that ripen before the middle of September do not fit most apple PYO operations,” Cowgill said. “The majority of consumers come to PYO orchards after October 1 with the Columbus Day weekend being the most trafficked.”
If it were feasible to just grow Honeycrisp for retail sales, that would be a great choice. But what would you and your pickers do the other 15 weeks of harvest season? And since the secrets of successfully storing Honeycrisp are yet to be found, all growers—wholesale or direct marketers—need several good varieties.
Cowgill recommends that direct marketers plant enough Honeycrisp to carry them to December, but not longer.
Use of multiple spot pickings and growth regulators has helped growers manage desirable varieties and lengthen or shift the harvest season.
Orchard watchers also manage to find desirable sports. Redder Honeycrisp are on the horizon. The Fuji season has been expanded with earlier ripening sports. Gala now comes in many strains, blushed or striped, earlier or later.
Ease of growing. When growers are rewarded with good prices, they are willing to suffer more to bring difficult apples to market. Honeycrisp is a perfect example.
“It’s a variety that needs multiple applications of foliar calcium to prevent bitter pit/cork spot,” he said. “Apply ReTain to prevent drop and allow for multiple picks (up to five). Crop load management is essential, with early thinning to help prevent biennial bearing and multiple applications of summer growth regulators to assist with return bloom. Honeycrisp trees must not be allowed to overcrop in the early years or you risk runting out.”
When packout losses and lower yields are considered, that $50 a box of Honeycrisp is surely not all profit.
There are other apples in the Northeast the have a tremendous following. Macoun is in that category. “Macoun is virtually a cult apple in the Northeast,” Cowgill said. “Ripening in late September-early October in North Jersey you need to pick it and move it out, because storage quality declines after November 15.”
He suggests direct marketers choose Liberty, which has a Macoun parent. “It is highly attractive, has excellent taste and crunch, and is one of the easiest trees to grow! Liberty is a great apple,” Cowgill said. Liberty was bred at Cornell University in 1955 by crossing Macoun with Purdue 54-12, which carried the gene for scab resistance from Malus floribunda.
Not only is it resistant to scab but also to fireblight, cedar apple rust, and mildew. Its name was chosen to mean it was free of disease. “If it is stored for four weeks before sale, it mellows and has a wonderful balance of sweet tart flavors,” Cowgill said.
“A direct marketer willing to educate the public can plant an apple that will appeal to the taste buds of a wide range of customers and be easier to grow.”
Will it store? Besides being a good-tasting apple, Fuji does well in the market because it stores. That’s very valuable for wholesalers and apple sellers who want to keep familiar varieties in their shelf space all year.
But, Cowgill says, even direct marketing by growers is becoming less seasonal. Many of the Greenmarkets in New York City are open all year, and many farm markets are as well.
“I never thought I’d see CA storages at farm markets,” Cowgill said, “but there are some.”
To keep a farm or farmers’ market open though the winter means having more to offer than root crops and squash. In the apple category, several are doing well; one is GoldRush, another scab-resistant apple from the PRI (Purdue, Rutgers, University of Illinois) Cooperative Series of apples. It ripens really late—the first week of November—and then likes to be stored for months for the color to deepen to gold and the flavor to come out.
“We’ve had people buy second refrigerators just so they can fill them with GoldRush to eat during the winter,” Cowgill said. “It’s an awesome apple for people who will take it home and keep it until Christmas.”
The second apple that is being planted for late sales is Cripps Pink. “It too has the crunch factor, and is highly attractive with a unique, tangy-tart, sweet flavor. In northern New Jersey, we pick it in mid-November.”
Is it adapted? There is more talk lately among apple growers about what wine grape growers would call terroir, the matching of a variety to the geography, geology, and climate of a region.
There is no doubt that some apples color better when grown in more northerly climates or won’t color in some areas because of a lack of cool weather, and certainly regions like to claim their fruit tastes better because of where it’s grown. But apple varieties tend to be widely grown.
It was once thought that northern New York and Michigan couldn’t grow Granny Smiths or GoldRush, or that Fuji and Cripps Pink matured too late for those areas.
“It looks like cold weather might trigger maturity,” Cowgill said. At least, northern growers are managing to grow long-season varieties.
If adaptation to an area is important for a variety, apple growers have a lot of work to do creating appellations like the wine growers have.
Certainly, varieties seem to be locally popular. Consumers in the Northeast still love their McIntosh. New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania have a thing about Macoun. In Pennsylvania, Nittany apples are snapped up by customers but virtually unknown elsewhere.