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A panel of experts took a look ahead at what the apple industry might be like in 2020, ten years from now.

It was part of the U.S. Apple Association’s outlook and marketing ­conference in Chicago in August.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the marketing side of the apple business seems a little fuzzier than does the production side.

Steven Muro, with Fusion Marketing in California, envisions a world in which its 7.6 billion people will carry 3 billion “mobile devices that will change everything.” Instead of a wallet, people will carry smart phones with GPS that will put them in instant contact with everything and put everything in contact with them.

Imagine an apple display in the supermarket sensing that you are walking by, because of the cell phone in your pocket. Knowing from your previous purchases what kind of apples you like, it immediately puts up a display sign tailored to you. Maybe it calls you by name and directs you to your favorite variety.

Already, you can do store-to-store price comparisons by scanning product bar codes and using an application on your smart phone.

Production changes

Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, foresees a continuing move towards mechanization on the production side.

“Hand labor is killing us,” he said. This fall, several new fresh-market apple harvesters will be tested in orchards across the United States, and some of them are very near commercial introduction.

By 2020, more workers will be on platforms, and they will be less skilled but more productive. Worker aids that eliminate walking, moving ladders, and carrying heavy picking bags will allow younger or older, less physically robust, people—and more women—to harvest apples, and enjoy the job.

Machines will be used for topping, thinning, and pruning, and fruiting walls will be standard. Robots that pick apples will not yet be in orchards, but robotic pruners will be, and robots will be used to scout and gather orchard information and work in the packing shed.

As apples continue to have higher value, orchard netting to combat hail, birds, and even insects will be standard, McFerson said. Reflective fabrics will be in use to improve light interception and improve fruit quality. We may have better apple thinners or self-abscising fruit.

In varieties, McFerson predicted, “We will see GMOs in the orchard, sooner or later.” While breeders will continue to find new varieties using conventional ­breeding—and do it more efficiently using genetic markers—there will be efforts to improve existing varieties by correcting their defects using genetic engineering. Apples are being genetically modified to reduce browning or provide scab resistance, for example. Those ­techniques could be used to improve good varieties like Golden Delicious or ­McIntosh. Growers will continue to use softer materials to control pests, McFerson said, and they will use social networking tools for Internet-based decision making.

“Growers probably won’t have time to twitter and tweet,” he said, “but they can use social networking to seek good advice based on sound science.”

Sustainability

Roger Pepperl, with Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, talked about how building a strong company sustainability image can win consumer loyalty—if it’s genuine. It can’t be window dressing, he said. Stemilt started its Responsible Choice program after the Alar scare of 1989 and has since moved into organics, a strong recycling program, water conservation, and other areas. The idea is to build a business that survives and adapts in the long haul.

That year, the company added the ladybug to its logo, as a symbol, and developed sustainability concepts based on the three Ps—people, profit, and planet.

IPM, he said, has become “the new normal.” Microsprinklers are used in the orchards and flow regulators in the packing lines to conserve water. Kestrel houses and trained falcons are used to control bird damage without damaging the birds.

The company uses fiber trays ­manufactured from recycled paper.

Energy-saving measures have been installed at the packing houses. Forklifts are all electric. There’s a lights-off policy to reduce energy use, and automatic folding doors keep cold air in and warm air out.

On the social and community level, Stemilt operates a recycling program in downtown Wenatchee, Washington, that turns leaves, cull fruit, and other organic wastes into compost, reducing the cost of waste disposal and making the waste useful. Local members of Future Farmers of America earned money building kestrel houses for the company. Employees have a free health clinic.

Sustainability has to be a genuine part of the company culture, not greenwash.

“You have to market what you are doing, not what you wish you were doing,” he said.

Fresh slices

Todd Silberg, retail supply chain ­manager for McDonald’s Corporation, reviewed the company’s success with a fresh sliced-apple product called Apple Dippers, which worked well in the United States. Sliced apples have not penetrated McDonald’s stores in other countries.

The success of sliced apples came as a result of McDonald’s finding partners to provide the right varieties, equipment, washes, etc., that McDonald’s needed to create a consistent product across 14,000 U.S. restaurants.

“Apples are performing well for us,” he said. “Apples fit in with entrees, desserts, and as a ready-to-go, consumer-friendly product. We have four apple items now, and are testing others.”

In his view, apples offer nutritional options, are healthy snacks, and are portable, durable, affordable, and socially responsible. Surely that kind of package will be around in 2020.