A Variety of Opinions
The Oppenheimer Group is the exclusive marketer for Pacific Rose in North America.
A couple of decades ago, deciding which variety to plant was simple. Most growers were planting Red Delicious or Granny Smith, and production was still very much dominated by Red and Golden Delicious, which were easy to produce, ship, and market.
But Grady Auvil and other forward thinkers had already been wondering aloud whether the industry was producing what the consumers really wanted, and were shifting to new varieties. Soon, the industry was abuzz about new varieties. You could get hold of some bud wood, or buy a few trees, and see how they performed, without making a huge investment.
The Pacific Northwest Fruit Tester's Association, led by Jim Ballard, enabled new-variety enthusiasts in the Northwest and far beyond to share their experiences and build on the collective knowledge about a whole host of varieties. Remember Akane? Criterion? Elstar? Sunrise?
Many failed to make the grade. Some had promise, but lacked a unified marketing effort. For packers and marketers, the small volumes of many varieties that their growers delivered complicated packing logistics and increased the number of inventory items exponentially.
In 1996 came news of a variety developed in New Zealand called Pacific Rose that was restricted at first to New Zealand growers. When ENZA later offered Pacific Rose to producers in the Pacific Northwest, it was to a select few growers and packers, who signed secrecy agreements, and paid up-front for the privilege of trying it—but with the assurance of a sound marketing effort. The developers, not unreasonably, wanted to keep control of the variety and receive a share of the rewards as it went into commercial production.
The Fruit Tester's Association, which had 400 members at its peak, disbanded in 2001. Ballard noted that the interest in new varieties had waned. And if access to new varieties was going to be restricted and growers not allowed to share their knowledge, how could such an association function?
More managed apple varieties have been introduced, such as Kiku (a strain of Fuji), Ambrosia, Piñata, and ENZA's follow-up variety, Jazz, but most of the apples produced commercially in the United States are still nonrestricted varieties. Restricted varieties cannot be major varieties because of the limited volume produced.
Production of Pacific Rose, now at 300,000 boxes in Washington, is likely to peak at 500,000 boxes. Jazz production will reach just over a million boxes by 2010, according to David Nelley, category manager at the David Oppenheimer Group, which is the exclusive marketer of the ENZA varieties in North America. The 32 "hand-picked" growers who are producing Jazz have been enjoying f.o.b. prices of up to $50 a box, he noted. The latest ENZA release, Envy, has been offered to the same growers who are producing Pacific Rose and Jazz, and is just starting to be planted.
The latest buzz word in the tree fruit industry is "target fruit," which agricultural economists define as fruit that returns a profit to the grower after all production and packing costs have been deducted. Growers are urged to use orchard systems that will produce the large, high-grade fruit for which the market will pay a premium. But variety choice plays a major role in profitability, too.
If new varieties can only be produced in limited quantities by a few people, where does that leave the rest of the 240-million-box U.S. apple industry? How many new varieties can the market absorb? If new varieties are developed with industry, university, or government funding, who gets to decide which few people can grow them? How can a grower who makes the commitment to join a managed-variety program be sure of making a profit from it? Is there a place for new open varieties?
These, and many other questions are being debated around the world. There's a sense of urgency to find the answers as new varieties, designed with the consumer in mind, approach commercialization. The answers depend on your perspective, and in this issue we present the viewpoints of people involved in the whole process, from breeding to marketing.
The variety conundrum is likely to be a continuing saga. Look for more insights in upcoming issues of Good Fruit Grower. •