A crew pounds posts for a trellis in a new EverCrisp block at Bear Mountain Orchards in Aspers, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania growers haven’t had much experience with managed varieties but are embracing EverCrisp. (Kate Prengaman / Good Fruit Grower)
’Tis the season for college football rivalries to get heated, but apple growers across the Midwest, no matter their Big 10 team allegiance, are united in their enthusiasm for EverCrisp.
The Ohio-bred apple is being embraced by growers in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Indiana and more — pretty much everywhere in the East that apples are grown. Developed by the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, the Honeycrisp-Fuji cross promises the signature texture of Honeycrisp without the growing headaches. MAIA estimates that more than 600,000 trees have been planted so far, and lots of growers are grafting as well.
For many growers in the region, EverCrisp is their first experience planting a managed variety. While club apples are becoming increasingly common in Washington, Michigan and New York, few growers in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina or Ohio have club varieties.
That’s about to change — sort of.
MAIA will manage EverCrisp as a trademarked variety, but with an open approach that allows any grower, large or small, to join in. The requirements: a $100-a-year membership, a royalty fee of $1 per tree at purchase and trademark and logo fees of 20 cents per tree for years four through 10 and 30 cents per tree in years 11 through 20.
That open-managed approach, and MAIA’s general mission to produce new apple varieties that are well-suited for the Midwest and accessible for small farms that would be left out of clubs, really appeals to growers.
“It’s refreshing to see guys like us, a grassroots organization of growers, that’s trying to make apples better for the right reasons,” said Bruce Hollabaugh, an Adams County, Pennsylvania, grower whose family runs a large farm market and a wholesale business.
He likes the MAIA approach so much he now hosts variety trials for them and has 2,500 promising selections for future releases planted.
The Midwest Apple Improvement Association is developing U.S. and international marketing strategies for its first commercial release: the EverCrisp apple. (Courtesy of MAIA)
Even long-standing club apple skeptics, such as Bear Mountain Orchards owner John Lott, are embracing EverCrisp, albeit cautiously.
“Everyone’s looking for a silver bullet and I really don’t think there’s a silver bullet,” he said. Too many club varieties may overwhelm or confuse consumers, he said, and compete with each other. But, he likes EverCrisp as an apple and MAIA’s approach to managing it and the up-and-coming releases from the breeding program.
“Those I feel have a chance. It’s being marketed as a variety by growers at every level, not branded in a box like most club varieties,” said Lott, who has planted 20 acres of EverCrisp in his Adams County orchards.
In Winchester, Virginia, Glaize Apples President Phil Glaize said he’d been burned once by a club variety that never caught on — he had to rip out 10 acres of trees after five years — and never took a chance on a club variety again. But he’s now excited about EverCrisp, too.
“It’s the East’s alternative to Cosmic Crisp,” he said.
Embracing desirable fresh market varieties, like EverCrisp, is going to be key to keeping Pennsylvania apple growers in business, said Mark Boyer, a grower in Western Pennsylvania and a recent chairman of the USApple board.
Only about 4 million of the state’s annual harvest of about 12 million bushels get sold fresh, he said. But, despite the state’s strong processing industry, more fresh production will be vital to keep orchards profitable in the face of rising labor costs.
Now, it remains to be seen if consumers will embrace EverCrisp as growers have. This year, as the first commercial orchards come into production, MAIA President Bill Dodd said they expect 100,000 cases to be distributed wholesale, along with many more sold direct to consumers. •