Participating in an apple club is like drilling an oil well. Wildcat drillers can have "tremendous rewards or hit a dry hole," says Dave Allan.
"There is tremendous risk," said the Yakima, Washington, grower-packer who is involved with Pacific Rose and Jazz varieties. Grower investments are high for the new varieties, which require up-front membership fees calculated on a per-acre basis and tree royalties.
"What if the consumers don’t share my same enthusiasm for the varieties?" he wondered.
Past experience shows that not all new varieties become market sensations. "When you plant Fuji, you know that someone will buy it. But not so with new varieties," he added.
Another concern with club varieties voiced by some industry members is critical mass. Will volume of the new varieties be enough to build the critical mass needed to reach consumers?
Bob Brammer of Crane and Crane, Inc., a growing and packing company in Brewster, Washington, answers that critical mass depends on the market and variety. For certain varieties, 200,000 boxes on a regional basis can be profitable. For others, critical mass may be at one or two million boxes.
He pointed to Honeycrisp, a new variety that has become very popular, as an example of a new variety being recognized by consumers without high volume numbers. Honeycrisp is reaching consumers through several fronts, including farmers’ markets, direct marketing, and retail grocery stores. Although nationwide production numbers on Honeycrisp are unavailable, several industry sources believe that production is less than one million boxes.
It’s been nearly five years since Brammer’s company first began planting the controlled varieties. Though the "scary risks" are still there, he worries less and less about them.
"It comes down to can you successfully grow them and can the marketing organization successfully sell them? Oppenheimer [the marketing arm] is getting better every year, learning how to move the whole manifest and not just one or two export grades, and management at ENZA is connecting with the grower."