How many is too many?
Limited retail shelf space could impact the success of new varieties.
When it comes to new varieties, John Rice predicts that in the next decade, most retailers will offer five main apple varieties year round—Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, and Red Delicious—and use the sixth slot to feature seasonal varieties, like Honeycrisp in the early autumn months and other varieties later in the season for a few months at a time, depending on storability strengths.
"We now have available apple varieties in every taste and color that a consumer could want," said the Gardners, Pennsylvania, grower-packer. The proliferation of new varieties has confused the consumer who can't see the differences and tell apart a Southern Rose, Braeburn, or Jonagold apple and now has a hard time figuring out what he or she wants. "The retailer can't offer every variety for sale because they don't have the shelf space. They're interested in selling the most apples in the least amount of space."
He sees a pattern developing in current variety offerings that he thinks will continue in the future—a few retailers like Costco will sell five to six varieties, while others will sell eight to nine varieties. "But I don't see any expansion beyond that," Rice commented. "People who imagined that the offspring of Honeycrisp and other new varieties will be offered year round will be disappointed."
As a result, he forecasts a loss of interest in new varieties in the coming years and a limited amount of play from the retailers. There will be some painful years of readjustment, he added.
Although Hartford, Michigan, diversified grower Trever Meachum has not seen a big demand from Michigan retailers for new varieties, he said that farmer's markets want as many new varieties as possible.
Michigan apple growers have not had access to many of the new managed varieties released in the last few years, he noted. And because the state does not have its own apple-breeding program, growers can expect to have limited access to varieties released from other breeding programs in New York, Washington, and Canada. According to Meachum, the newest variety planted in Michigan is SweeTango (managed by the Next Big Thing cooperative), with a few growers planting Piñata, a variety managed by Stemilt Growers in Washington.
"The apple industry has turned into the 'haves' and 'haves not' when it comes to new varieties," said Meachum. While the Meachum family's High Fruit Farms is a member of the Next Big Thing, he noted that most Michigan growers are in the 'have not' category. "Do we need a breeding program in Michigan? Probably not, but we may need to support other programs to gain variety access."
He believes that the apple variety mix will change significantly in the coming years. "It will come down to shelf space and how many different varieties a retailer is willing to handle," he said. "Retailers won't put 30 varieties on display. There will be winners and losers in the next decade."
Gebbers Farms's Cass Gebbers also thinks there will not be enough room for all of the new varieties on the 'variety treadmill.' The Brewster, Washington, grower-packer said the variety treadmill is not sustainable.
Gebbers Farms, entering into its second century of growing apples in north central Washington, was one of the first in the state to plant Granny Smith in the late 1960s. "It took 40 years to get Granny Smith accepted to where it is today," Gebbers said. "And 24 years for Gala to be a commodity variety. There's just not enough room and time for all of the new varieties."