Quality above all
Variety managers discuss how direct marketers can be involved.
The ability to control the volume of production may be a key to managed-variety programs, but it is far less important than the ability to control quality, Dennis Courtier believes. "The critical aspect of managed varieties and brands is controlling quality," he said. "Any ten-year-old will tell you, people are inclined to eat more of something they like—and something they like consistently."
Courtier's business, Pepin Heights Orchard, Inc., of Lake City, Minnesota, is a major marketer of Honeycrisp and is part of a cooperative that has been formed to commercialize a new apple variety from the University of Minnesota, MN 1914.
Speaking during a panel discussion at the International Fruit Tree Association's annual conference in California, Courtier asked the audience what they thought the impact would be if half the Coca Cola bottles on sale had no bubbles and no taste.
"Our industry has suffered from a lack of internal self-discipline when it comes to putting real quality in front of the consumer," he told growers. "We have proven with Honeycrisp how they will respond if you put real quality in front of them. They can't get enough. And so the notion of brand really is about consistent high quality. That is what managed varieties really need to do."
Rick Derrey, who manages ENZA's (New Zealand) new variety programs in the United States, said it's his responsibility to decide which nursery grows the trees, how many are grown, which growers can plant them, and where they are planted. The importance of branding and having a consistent product for the brand is a factor in the decisions about who gets to grow a variety and where, he said.
Dr. Terence Robinson, horticulturist at Cornell University, New York, asked if there could be a mechanism to allow direct marketers to grow a small quantity of new varieties without wholesaling them.
Evan Milburn of Elkton, Maryland, said it's a problem for direct marketers when they can't have access to new varieties. "My customers come in and say, 'I want Jazz.' What am I supposed to say?"
"I guess you tell them to go to the local grocery store and buy them because that's where they're going to be," Derrey responded.
Lynnell Brandt, president of Brandt's Fruit Trees in Yakima, Washington, said family-farm retail outlets need to be a part of managed-variety systems.
"The commercialization of these new products needs to take that market segment into account, and I believe there are good mechanisms for doing that," he said.
Courtier said the new managed-variety system that he's involved in is considering how managed varieties can be offered to direct marketers.
"It's something that's going to be essential," he said. "The direct-market volume is actually synergistic with commercial volume. I think direct-market retailers who spend all week and all fall sampling apples—doing demos, if you will—absolutely create more demand than they can ever satisfy. Over the years, we will be really missing an opportunity as variety managers if we do not figure out a way to make managed varieties available to direct retailers."
However, he said they would need to be made available under the same quality and royalty constraints as for producers who sell on the wholesale market. "I think the critical thing is quality," he said. "We need to have a consistent delivered eating quality."
Claudia Acosta of Consorcio Viveros de Chile S.A., complained that small growers in Chile have not had the opportunity to grow ENZA varieties. Production is limited to a small acreage owned by large companies.
Derrey said when ENZA was looking for growers to produce Jazz and Pacific Rose in the United States, it approached mainly small family farmers, and did not go to packers and big operations. "Most of the growers are pretty much betting the family farm that this is going to work," he said.
The reason the varieties have not been made available to more growers is that they've reached their target in terms of acreage, he said. ENZA is not planning any additional plantings of Jazz or Pacific Rose just now, but if it does, other growers will have an opportunity to join the programs.
When asked if there was some way for growers to be involved in Jazz without betting the family farm on the success of one variety, Derrey answered, "When I say that they're betting the family farm on it, I mean that there are not a lot of other options out there for varieties. Do you upgrade a variety you already have—plant a redder Gala, redder Fuji? Or get in a program like this that has the potential to be more profitable than something you might already be doing? They are really counting on something like this to be successful."
Courtier said when deciding who should be part of the MN 1914 program, it was assumed that the variety, like its parent Honeycrisp, might be better suited to some geographic areas than others. First, his company considered its existing business partners, and then competitors that it had a lot of respect for that were in places likely to produce the best quality fruit.
"We're building the bridge as we're crossing that," he told IFTA members. "There's no template for how to do all this. I don't think you should assume this will mean you will be completely left behind in the lurch."
Courtier said there are so many new apples being released as managed varieties that there will be varieties suited to a wide range of geographic conditions, and a grower who has the ideal location for a variety may well be approached to grow a new variety.
"The key is quality," he emphasized. "Let's find the right varieties for the right place and put these mechanisms together to make these varieties available to the best growers."
Acosta said that in her experience by the time a new variety is successful, the club is already closed. She tells growers in Chile that they need to take the risk of trying out a variety on a small scale as soon as it becomes available so they can be first in line when the variety managers are looking for growers to plant more acreage.
Brandt said variety managers do want to put out material for testing but are cautious. "The more tests and trials we put out, the more exposure to not being able to maintain intellectual property protection," he said. "We do not have perfect models in place, but there is a desire to make sure that what we're placing out there in fact fits that area, and that testing material goes out. But it's not going to be available to everyone all the time. It's not practical. It's not possible, and there's too much exposure from an IP standpoint on a global basis."