As the Washington State apple crop shifts in terms of varieties and volumes, the Washington Apple Commission must match its export efforts to what is happening in the industry, says Todd Fryhover, commission president.
The big upsurge in Honeycrisp, which is selling at high prices on the domestic market, will likely push other varieties from the domestic to the export market, just as increasing volumes of Gala have eaten into the consumption of Golden Delicious domestically, resulting in a need to promote Goldens overseas. Mexico, the only significant export market for Golden Delicious, took 3.2 million boxes of that variety last season. The second largest market was Canada, which took 645,000 boxes, followed by Dubai, which imported 155,000 boxes.
Agricultural economist Dr. Desmond O’Rourke has forecast that Gala will overtake Red Delicious in volume in Washington by 2018, but Fryhover doubts that Gala will become the top exported variety. Fifty percent of Washington’s apple exports are Red Delicious—a variety that is produced only in small volumes in other areas.
“I don’t think Gala will overtake Reds on the export side,” Fryhover said. “Our Red is unique. It’s our signature apple.”
The variety holds such prestige in export markets that it is often displayed upside down showing its distinctive five lobes. Ninety-six percent of Washington apples exported to India are Red Delicious.
“They call the Red Delicious the Washington apple,” agreed commission chair Frank Davis of Yakima.
In fact, the Washington Red Delicious has such a cachet overseas that some Chinese growers try to pass off their apples as Washington by using fake stickers, Fryhover said. Only recently, misidentified Chinese apples were seen in India. Fryhover said the commission tries to protect the Washington apple trademark, which is registered in most countries other than China. When the product moves out of China to a country where it is registered, the commission can pursue legal action. A similar incident involved a producer in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Ironically, fewer Washington producers are labeling their apples with the Washington logo. Fryhover said he understands the reasons for this. First, since the Apple Commission is no longer promoting apples in the domestic market, packers and marketers have been placing more emphasis on promoting their own brands.
Some of the reasons for not using the Washington logo on export apples are logistical. Apple stickers now have two data bars, providing information about food safety and traceability as well as identifying the product. This takes much much of the space on the label and some packers opt to put on just their own brand name rather than the Washington logo.
Another difficulty is that when they pack fruit, they don’t always know if it will end up on the domestic market or export market, so they can’t use two different stickers.
Obstacles to using a carton with one or more generic Washington panels on it are the fact that shippers sometimes pack fruit from other states or the Southern Hemisphere and so couldn’t use the Washington brand for all the fruit. When a packer uses various colored packs to denote different Washington Extra Fancy grades, the difficulty is multiplied.
However, Fryhover said the diminishing use of the Washington logo is having an impact in export markets.
“Growers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in this logo. It does have brand equity. It does symbolize quality, and we’re losing that brand equity.
“I think, from the board’s perspective, we need to look at this more to see if there’s a way we can build off of the brand equity we have invested in since 1937.”
Board member Cass Gebbers said he worries about the loss of the logo. For people in overseas markets, it represents good quality fruit that holds up well. “We all have our brands, but it’s the strength of the Washington brand that helps us.”
Davis said the Washington Apple logo is hugely important. “We’re losing our identity the way we’re currently going. It definitely needs to be a point of discussion moving forward on how we change that.”