Apple growers need good niche apples
At farmers’ markets in New York City, anything that’s new and different sells, says orchardist Chuck Mead.
Nothing adds spice to a horticulture meeting like a discussion of new, upcoming, promising apple varieties. Some growers—those depending on commercial packing houses and wholesale distribution—may be looking for that one new variety that could someday transform the industry. Honeycrisp comes to mind.
Growers who have more direct access to local consumers through their own markets and marketing efforts don’t need one world-transforming variety. They need a series of good niche apples they can sell fresh off the tree, starting early in summer and carrying on to Thanksgiving, plus something to store to start the season the next year.
Direct-market growers are willing to experiment. They make small plantings and test varieties, and those that aren’t successful get pushed out, grafted over, or find their home in cider, which is a good product at farm markets.
Take the case of Alison and Tom DeMarree of Williamson, New York. On the Donald DeMarree Fruit Farm, they grow 29 varieties. They don’t have a farm market themselves, but they sell to people who do or who sell through farmers’ markets.
Rich Reisinger, who has a farm market called Reisinger Apple Country at Watkins Glen, New York, has only 20 acres of apples, but 20 varieties.
Chuck Mead, who farms at Tivoli 100 miles north of New York City, has 50 acres of apples, and 38 cultivars.
Put all these people together for a discussion, and it can be lively. During the Empire Horticulture Show in Syracuse, New York, last winter, Extension educator Steven Hoying chaired a panel discussion with these three apple growers—and added his observations as well.
Alison DeMarree, who is also an Extension economist with Cornell University, uses her practical experience as an orchardist to advise others. Not surprisingly, she had her list of varieties in an Excel spreadsheet on a PowerPoint presentation. Some of the varieties are well-known to everyone, and others are obscure or regional. The Northeast is noted for its love of McIntosh, in its many strains, and McIntosh-related varieties like Empire, Macoun, and Cortland.
Practice at their farm is to buy from 5 to 50 trees of a variety and test them. The 160 acres of fruit, started by her husband’s family and focused on peaches for processing, has been under her and Tom’s management since 1988, and since then they have replanted to fresh-market apple varieties. Grafting over of rejected varieties is a common practice on the farm.
Chuck Mead’s orchard of 38 cultivars has plantings from as few as ten trees to nine acres of his biggest variety—Gala in its various strains.
“At farmers’ markets in New York City, anything that’s different or new sells,” he said. “Sometimes, customers just want to try a few. Many varieties develop a following, and people look for them every year.”
Mead has found this market provides a great opportunity to test new apple varieties, and he’s especially interested in trying those coming out of the Cornell apple-breeding program. He intends to grow the two new ones Cornell released last year that can be grown only by New York growers.
Some varieties he likes include the scab-resistant varieties Pristine, GoldRush, and Redfree, developed in the Purdue, Rutgers, and Illinois (PRI) program, but he’s not been able to benefit much from their disease resistance. “If I’d planted them all together in a block,” he said, “I could have saved on fungicide costs. But they’re all interplanted, so there’s no real benefit.”
Mead grows most of the varieties on DeMarree’s list, plus some. One he likes is Blondee, a new variety that is banana-yellow and smooth-skinned, and very early. Also on his list is Senshu, which is like an early Fuji but, he says, richer in flavor. He also likes Shizuka, which looks like its sister, Crispin (once called Mutsu), but is earlier.
Varieties like GoldRush and Braeburn are long-season, late maturing, sometimes too late to grow in western New York. But GoldRush stores very well, and both its color and flavor improve in storage. GoldRush apples are often used to kick off the farm-market season as they come out of storage in May and June. Cameo is another that stores well and can sell with strawberries, which the Mead farm also raises and sells in June.
Mead finds the large number of varieties isn’t daunting to his customers. He sells them all properly identified and customers learn what they like. Some days he has 24 different varieties for sale at one of the New York City markets he frequents. He sells 80 percent of his apples wholesale, but the 20 percent he sells retail generate half the farm’s revenue.
Rich Reisinger was the research farm manager at Cornell until he retired six years ago and went into business growing apples for himself. “I had seen a lot of varieties over the years,” he said. “I started with a corn field and worked from there to make my own orchard.”
He sells most of his apples U-pick, working with his wife, Karen, and two daughters and grandchildren. His list of varieties includes Empire, Honeycrisp, Gala, Ginger Gold, Sansa, Zestar!, Jonagold, Crispin, Jonamac, Cripps Pink, and six strains of McIntosh spread over the season. The strain Hampshire Mac carries the McIntosh season into late October. They start the U-pick operation August 1 and close at Thanksgiving.
Crimson Crisp, which used to be Co-op 39 in the PRI program, is one of the best of the scab-resistant varieties, Reisinger said. “We really like this one. They hang well, they’re easy to thin, they’re beautiful, and they store well. They’re tart. They have a real bite to them. Customers in our area like that.”
He also has GoldRush, Cameo, and Golden Delicious.
“For U-pick, we need fruit that hangs well,” he said. Honeycrisp’s propensity to drop is a problem, but he gets a 40 percent premium for that variety.
“On an average Saturday, we’ll get 800 people here picking apples,” he said. “My goal is to greet everyone personally.” People are left pretty much to themselves to pick—rows are all numbered—and the family weighs the fruit and checks pickers out when they’re finished. Customers get a kid’s wagon (he has 50 of them) to pull and bring in the apples. “They pick more that way, knowing they don’t have to carry them,” he said.
On taller trees, he picks the tops and offers that fruit for sale in the farm market. He doesn’t provide ladders to customers.
In the panel discussion, the growers and Hoying discussed a list that would appeal to direct marketers and another that wholesale growers might consider (see charts).