The belief that certain apples have superior value perhaps began when a slithery creature wiggled up to Adam and Eve, hissing, “Try this. It has a nice balance of sweetness and tartness, and a sinfully good crunch.”
Adam and Eve validated what we know today: consumers will pay big for an apple of perceived value. Popular varieties fetch excellent prices. Take the Honeycrisp apple. It rules the supermarket produce section just as Alaska’s renowned Copper River salmon commands the seafood counter.
The willingness of consumers to pay higher prices for prestige fruit has given rise to networks of researchers, nurseries, growers, marketers, and industry associations who treat fruit as intellectual property that requires legal protection, managed licensing, and staged marketing campaigns to spur buying around the world. Those mechanisms seek to ensure profits for those on every step in the supply chain. Such organizations exist to popularize emerging varieties such as red-fleshed apples or Washington State’s WA 38 apple.
One man flourishing in that network is Gavin Porter, chief executive of the Australian Nurserymen’s Fruit Improvement Company, which is owned by 12 tree fruit nurseries. The company deals in a diverse array of fruit, including mangos, table grapes, apples, pears, apricots, and nectarines.
Porter grew up as a self-described townie in the farming region around -Gatton, Australia, the child of parents who managed the local Mitre 10 hardware store.
Porter went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in horticulture technology and a Ph.D. in botany, taught for many years at a university, and became a leader in intellectual property management and commercialization of new fruit varieties. Last year, The University of Queensland awarded him the Gatton Gold Medal for his contributions to horticulture and education.
Porter recently visited the United States for a gathering of members of the Associated International Group of Nurseries, based in Yakima, Washington, of which he is chief executive officer. He took a break from visiting with colleagues, researchers, and growers to talk with Good Fruit Grower about industry trends and his observations of which Australian growers best succeed.
The AIGN started 25 years ago as an organization formed to share information about rootstocks and varieties and to assist members seeking to enter different markets around the world. Porter says the need for an organization such as AIGN has grown. “The world has become such a small, global village, if you want to call it that now, that you cannot do anything in isolation anymore,” said Porter. “So the ability to work with members all over the world because we’re exporting and importing, the ability to protect new fruit varieties amongst that sort of global trade, is more important now than ever before.”
Interest in intellectual property protection has grown for many reasons, including the increase in private development of new varieties and the reality that development costs may not be recovered for a decade or more. A profitable new variety must not only cover its own development costs, but also those for varieties that fail. As little as 1 percent of new varieties prove to be profitable, Porter said.
Traditional varieties make growers money. But tradition doesn’t generate buzz. It’s new varieties that generate talk and excitement, he said. And talk of a grower’s new varieties not only helps sell those fruit, but over time opens the door to sales of a grower’s entire inventory.
Porter said new varieties he’s discussing these days include Sweetie, a Gala derivative; Smitten, another Gala derivative; and Papple, an interspecific pear variety with Chinese and Asian pear parentage. The Papple is being grown in Australia and New Zealand. Porter expects U.S. growers will plant it soon. Consumers always make the call on whether a variety is a success. “They’re the ones who are going to part with their hard-earned dollar,” said Porter, adding the customer must want to come back and buy that variety again and again.
While new varieties are good for business, Porter said success for a grower starts with understanding costs. In Australia, Porter knew some growers who each year turned over their financial numbers to an accountant and asked if they had made money or not. That’s not a method for success. Porter said he finds that growers who know their costs, “almost on a block by block basis,” are best positioned for success.
Knowing costs, however, should not be confused with making cost containment the highest priority.
“In most cases, everyone who wants to make money tries to cut costs to try and earn money,” said Porter. “That’s not the way to make it happen. What you want to make sure is, getting the most fruit off your trees that have the highest quality and somehow getting prices that get you the highest returns. If you increase that end of the supply chain rather than trying to reduce costs, you’ll make more money.”
Maybe the snake in the garden had it right. Go for the best quality. •