How to choose the variety
Should you talk to your marketer or not?
This is the first of a series of articles covering all aspects of planning and establishing a competitive orchard.
When planning a new orchard, first of all consider what challenges or problems the orchard needs to address, advises Tom Auvil, research horticulturist with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.
"Are plantings of the future going to be based on solving our challenges of the future or just the next marketing activity for the next year?" he asked. "If we have marketing issues, and labor issues, and regulatory issues, are our new plantings going to be part of the problem or part of the solution? That's a fundamental planning decision."
When selecting the variety to plant, examine your harvest resources, such as labor, housing, ladders, tractors, and equipment, and see which varieties would best fit into your current production system, Auvil advises. For example, you might want to plant a variety to fill a gap in the harvest period and avoid downtime for your crew or equipment. Maximizing the use of your limited resources is the key.
"You probably don't want 100 percent of a variety you have to harvest in five days," Auvil said. "You probably want to harvest over six to eight weeks."
Some varieties need a cool climate to color well, but an overhead cooling system can mitigate the environment to a surprising degree, Auvil said. That increases costs, but if you can change the packout, grade, or yield in a positive direction, something that has a big price tag can end up being a fairly small cost on a per-unit basis.
Check on the marketing outlook, he suggests. Look at your own packout reports, analyze your revenues over time, and try to find a marketer to talk to who has a sense of retail trends. Do not talk to a salesperson, Auvil advised, because they tend to respond based on today's situation. Marketers are more likely to consider varieties in the context of the profitability on the farm.
If your marketing company says, "Reds and Goldens forever," a new variety is not going to solve the problem, Auvil said, but if your marketing company says, "We need a parade of new varieties to take to market outside the commodity varieties," then you need to consider whether those new varieties will generate the yields, packouts, and pricing that will support a 20-percent return on investment, which is what he believes should be the target for a new planting.
Some varieties are available only to a limited number of growers. Club varieties have been criticized because of the high up-front acreage fees and production royalties. However, some have been successful enough that growers have made a handsome return on growing them, despite those added costs, Auvil said.
Dave Allan, with the growing-packing operation Allan Brothers in Yakima, Washington, said his company bases its variety planting decisions mainly on its perception of whether the consumer will enjoy the apple.
"The process we go through is we take an apple, and cut it up, and everybody samples it, and we say we think we should plant it or we don't think we should plant it," he said. "If the apple is going to be a very difficult apple to grow, that enters into it."
Allan is thinking of planting the New Zealand apple Envy, based primarily on its good eating quality and shelf life. The royalties that have to be paid on a club variety are a lesser consideration because the up-front acreage fee is not much different than a per-tree royalty, and the production royalty is a percentage of the gross sales price. An advantage of a club variety is that it usually has a strong promotional program. Allan said he might hesitate to plant a new variety that did not have a promotion program.
He does not recommend asking a marketer for advice on what to plant. "The marketer doesn't know anything more than we do," he said. "The marketer can't tell you what the demand for Gala's going to be in five years. Can you tell me five years from now if we go from 20 to 24 million boxes, is there still going to be market acceptance of Gala, when we're going to have a number of new varieties?"
Allan said his company made a mistake by being too slow to plant Honeycrisp, a variety that is difficult to grow but popular with consumers. "That's the most amazing apple," he said. "Every time I turn around, I find somebody that likes Honeycrisp."
Allan tried growing Honeycrisp but was put off at first by problems such as bitter pit. "We were probably four years too slow," he said. "We've planted a lot of Honeycrisp in the last five years."
The bar is being raised in terms of the qualities an apple needs to be successful, Allan said. "Two-thirds of the varieties that come to the market in the next ten years will fade away and will be of no consequence. That's a real risk. This is just like drilling an oil well. It's the same level of risk."
That means growers should proceed slowly at first with new varieties, so they don't invest too much in a loser.
Allan said his company is having some success with Pacific Rose, though it's an extremely difficult apple to grow. He is optimistic about Jazz, but it's not yet been demonstrated at the retail level that the variety will be a winner.
How the apple is grown can greatly affect the quality, he said. "Pacific Rose, if you overcrop it, is a pretty bad apple. If you grow it just right, it's a fantastic apple. Then how do you get everybody on the same page for growing Pacific Rose? That's your challenge."
Auvil says that there cannot be too many good new varieties, but he thinks they will take the place of old varieties.
"You don't enter into a new product development program with the idea that all the old products will remain as successful as they have been," he said. "We have to expect that the market will show a preference in demand for various product lines and old ones will become less desirable over time."
Part 2, in our next issue, will focus on rootstock selection.