Early Fujis kick-start the season
Although Fuji is the top variety being planted, sales of Early Fuji trees have dropped off.
September Wonder is one of several early Fuji strains.
It's been said that when Grady Auvil discovered an early Fuji sport in his orchard in 1993, the tree fruit pioneer predicted it would "revolutionize" the Fuji market. More than 20 years later, early strains are helping to jumpstart the Fuji market, but they haven't replaced standard Fujis.
The Auvil Early Fuji, patented in 1997, was not the first early strain. Two earlier strains had been discovered in Japan, and one U.S. discovery was made in 1992 in a Prescott, Washington, orchard owned by Ralph Broetje. The Broetje find was patented in 2000. It was originally known as Jubilee and is now trademarked as September Wonder.
But in 1999, the Auvil Early Fuji was among the first to come into commercial production. It was a marvel for its time, reaching maturity, with good red color, weeks ahead of red Fuji.
Today, in addition to September Wonder and Auvil Early Fuji, other available early strains include Daybreak Fuji, patented in 2002; Rising Sun Fuji; Myra Red Fuji; and Morning Mist. The Early Fuji strains can mature from two to eight weeks ahead of red Fuji, depending on variety.
Shift in shipping
Although Early Fuji shipments are not tracked separately from Fuji, a look at Fuji shipping data, compiled by the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, shows a significant shift in the number of boxes of Fuji shipped by mid-October.
From 2002 to 2007, the volume varied from a low of 293,000 boxes to a high of 897,000 boxes shipped by mid-October. But in 2008, 1 million Fuji boxes were shipped, and this year, 1.38 million boxes were shipped, about 10 percent of the total Fuji crop.
The sharp uptick in shipments mirrors the increased plantings of the early strains as reported in Tree Top's 2008 Apple and Pear Variety Production and Planting Trends in Washington State, which does report Early Fuji and red Fuji separately. The survey shows that Early Fuji plantings peaked in 2001, representing 12 percent of all trees sold that year, but have steadily declined since then. In the last four years, orders for Early Fuji nursery trees decreased from 7 percent to 2 percent of the total, the lowest level since Tree Top began including the variety in the survey. However, plantings of red Fuji have remained strong, with the planting percentage for 2009 estimated at 25 percent and 23 percent for 2010, the highest of all varieties being tracked.
The survey found that three major Early Fuji strains are being sold today. They continue to experience good consumer demand as full-color apples with high Brix and good flavor. Early Fuji should continue in the 3 to 5 percent range of trees sold in the future, the report states.
While Early Fuji is changing the start of the Fuji season, there's little concern that it will takeover the Fuji market. In 2008, the total Fuji crop in Washington was 14.8 million boxes. Only 1 million boxes of Fuji (representing mostly Early Fuji) were shipped by mid-October, according to Growers Clearing House data.
Auvil Fruit Company's sales manager Brian Sand said that Early Fuji fills an important market window in late September and October. "We grow just enough to fill that window. For us, the fruit helps to kick-start the Fuji deal," he said, but added that the minute the company can begin picking red Fuji, it switches.
Although the now-mature trees have settled down and are producing excellent-colored fruit, Early Fuji has a different life cycle than red Fuji and doesn't store as long, Sand said. Auvil Fruit has changed the way it handles Early Fuji to improve quality by cooling fruit down and not shipping as quickly.
Early Fuji is a good balancing tool for the grower and packer, he said, noting that they shipped their last Early Fuji order for the 2009 season in the third week of October. "For us and most other packers, we've found that current production levels are just about right, and we're not planting anymore. Levels have reached about where they need to be."
Mac Riggan of Chelan Fresh Marketing in Chelan, Washington, agrees that the Early Fuji helps jump-start the season and carve out shelf space for the rest of the season. "Fuji is an apple where there is always pent-up demand at the start of the season, more so than other varieties," he said. As production levels of Early Fuji have increased, more have gone to domestic markets, Riggan added.
"Even though we've seen slippage for prices as more Early Fujis have become available, relative to other varieties, there's still a premium for being early," he said.
Growers located in areas where it is questionable whether late-maturing varieties can be picked before cold temperatures arrive are among those interested in planting early Fujis, said Jack Snyder of C & O Nursery in Wenatchee, Washington. "Early Fujis, like September Wonder, have gained in popularity in the last few years because it takes the pressure off of a grower of not getting the crop harvested because of weather," he said. "Those in favorable weather locations are still growing standard Fujis, but a lot of acreage is on high elevation where high color can be achieved. Early varieties may have a place there."
Some orchardists grow Early Fuji to help fill harvest gaps for their labor pool, Snyder said. If labor availability is an issue and growers need to hold onto their pickers for later varieties, Early Fuji may be a good fit. "But it depends on a grower's individual crop mixthe grower may have too many crops being harvested in September and doesn't need another one to worry about."
Another benefit is that growers can receive money for their fruit earlier than for long-term storage fruit. Because the apples do not store as well as red Fuji, they are not put in controlled-atmosphere storage but are marketed right away.
Snyder notes that September Wonder is being planted in warm growing areas, such as California, Australia, Tasmania, Europe, and Chile for timing reasons. "Growers in California that have been out of the apple game in the last few years are now showing interest and starting to plant September Wonder."
It seems that whenever the Pacific Northwest growers experience an early freeze, such as the cold temperatures that hit Washington in mid-October, interest is sparked in early varieties, he mused. "Right now, it's hard to get growers interested in participating with our evaluations that deal with any late varieties. But if you mention something that's early, they become interested because it takes the fear out of the equation."