Over a decade ago, Mid-Atlantic apple growers started asking their packer and marketer, Hess Bros. Fruit Co., to pursue a new premium apple program to help them compete with the club apples available in Washington. Now, production of the apple is ramping up in partnership with a major Washington company.
The partnership makes sense for Pennsylvania growers, said Matt Boyer, one of the first growers to plant Regal 10-45, which is being marketed as WildTwist.
“They went in with the idea of getting the apple out there, rather than being an Eastern apple no one has ever heard of,” said Boyer, who farms with his family in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania.
WildTwist expects to hit a million bushels of production in the next few years, as orchards in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania come into full production, said Chris Sandwick, marketing director for Hess Bros., a packer and marketer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“This is not a small regional play, this is a national play, with national retailers,” he said. “The rationale for expanding in the West is one of volume and also one of logistics.”
At present, the planting is split evenly between the East and West growing regions, with Rainier Fruit partnering on the Western program.
What’s in a name?
There’s no doubt that WildTwist faces a lot of competition on grocery store shelves, Sandwick said. It’s a tough time to introduce a new variety, or in the case of WildTwist, rebrand a variety. Hess Bros. first branded the apple, R10-45, as SweetCheeks, but two years later decided to re-approach after receiving mixed responses from retailers.
“In this cacophony of new varieties, we felt like we had to do something with the name to cut through that, and what we settled on was this idea to emphasize the parentage,” Sandwick said. R10-45 is a cross between Honeycrisp and Cripps Pink. “We thought if we could get to consumers with the message that this apple comes from two apples you know and love, that standing in front of a display with six or seven varieties, they’d want to choose WildTwist.”
That approach seems to be resonating, said Ryan Hess, co-owner and grower services lead for his family company.
“We’re trying to learn how to differentiate (WildTwist) in the marketplace,” he said. “We felt like we had no choice but to go big” to succeed in today’s retail landscape.
When it came to a partnership to build the program, Hess Bros. found shared values in Rainier, Hess said.
“It was important to us to find a partner with the same goal: to get the money back to the dirt, to get money back to our growers,” he said.
Premium in Pennsylvania
The entire program started because Pennsylvania growers approached Hess Bros. owners about pursuing a premium apple, for which there were no options in the Mid-Atlantic in 2008, said Hess. The first R10-45 trees were planted, along with numerous other selections from Regal Fruit International, in 2009.
“We probably realized they were good in 2013,” Hess said. “We picked the apples too early, and it tasted OK but not great for about three years, but then when we were about to stop caring about them, we went to pick them around Halloween and they were great.”
That late harvest timing isn’t exactly an advantage, Boyer said, as it falls with his Fuji and EverCrisp, and he’d rather have something that could replace his Red Delicious. But it’s a really good-flavored apple, and that’s what matters, he said.
“We have a farm market here and people ask for it by name when it comes in,” Boyer said. “It’s been well received but it has to take its time, because repeat sales mean everything.”
Still, taking a chance on an unproven variety poses risks for a family farm, he said. Boyer Orchards, the family business he runs with his brother, Bruce, and three sons between them, has about 300 acres of apples, and they planted 20 acres of R10-45. That’s enough, Boyer said.
He’s also found some challenges with fruit finish. “It doesn’t particularly like the colder weather in the spring, and we’re in the mountains of Pennsylvania where we do get russet,” he said.
At neighboring Ridgetop Orchards, they also planted about 20 acres of WildTwist, said Mark Boyer, Matt’s nephew, who farms about 450 acres with his father and brother. He likes the apple and Hess Bros.’ management of the brand, but it’s still a risky endeavor in today’s crowded market, he said.
“It has the Pink Lady attributes of a nice growing tree, easier to set limbs, easy to train,” he said. But he also sees the Honeycrisp headaches in the finish issues. “We see it with EverCrisp here, too. That Honeycrisp parentage is haunting. It won’t let you have a break.”
They keep adjusting spray programs to be easy on the finish, but they haven’t yet perfected the recipe, he said.
Hess said the finish issues depend on the growing season climate, but they don’t see the issue in New York or Washington.
“I think it will ultimately be easier than Honeycrisp, but we are still on the learning curve,” Hess said. “It doesn’t store like a Red Delicious, it doesn’t store like a Honeycrisp, it stores like a WildTwist.”
It stores so well that Hess Bros. currently targets a January through June storage season. That storability presents a real advantage in today’s apple market, Mark Boyer said.
“It’s the type of apple people can put on their counter for two weeks and it’s just as crunchy and juicy,” he said. “Those are the characteristics we need in the 21st century apple.”
—by Kate Prengaman