Having been a preteen in the 1970s, the phrase “To boldly go where no man has gone before” carries immeasurable significance to me — the unknown, great anticipation and unforeseen expectation, all positive and exciting, almost … Cosmic.
As middle age settles in, with 30-plus years of apple industry experience, the old adages of my youth have application to the Washington apple industry today. I’m left to ponder many questions without clear answers, more so today than at any time during my tenure in the industry.
My aptitude has always been in international trade, and recent events have created pause, uncertainty and a clouded perception of Washington’s place in the world apple market. Clearly superior growing conditions, the progressive excellence of our grower community and varietal diversification at “warp speed” drive our industry’s prominence. However, influences outside of our control, or even anticipation, create new challenges and opportunities that cause even the most educated in our industry to struggle.
As trade plays out on the world stage and markets open and close without concern for the producers, we’re forced to be flexible. Organic versus conventional, mainstream versus proprietary, and the up-and-coming Cosmic Crisp have all increased grower risk — and it’s anybody’s guess on the optimum position to be successful five years down the road. But, perhaps, the answer is to bypass as much of the uncertainty as possible and concentrate on our home field advantage. What can the industry control?
While international product placement remains resolute, and our industry’s reputation high, the current industry’s optimum varietal makeup is focused on the U.S. consumer. The new North American trade agreement, USMCA, that replaced NAFTA, brings together nearly 500 million consumers with similar economic status, family values and a willingness to pay for high-quality produce. The year 2019 will provide consumers the opportunity to taste Washington’s proprietary variety: the Cosmic Crisp — a cross between the now-famed Honeycrisp and Enterprise varieties. And I wouldn’t characterize this as a U.S. consumer introduction, but more as the foreshadowing of the Cosmic Crisp “tsunami.”
The stage is set for Cosmic Crisp volumes to exceed 14 million bushels in five years. It’s planted, being nurtured, growing and coming straight at us like a freight train. To provide context, it has taken Honeycrisp 25 years to reach a similar volume as Cosmic Crisp will in five years. And this is only the beginning, with anticipated volumes to exceed 20 million by 2025. U.S. consumer per capita consumption is increasing, primarily due to new variety introduction, in my opinion, but nothing compares to the increases in consumption necessary to absorb this volume. It will be as much about variety displacement as increasing per capita consumption.
The success of Cosmic Crisp very well could change the U.S. apple industry for decades to come. And not just for Washington state apple growers but the entire apple category, as Washington meets and exceeds consumer expectations by providing a repeatable, favorable and scalable eating experience. But this requires patience, sacrifice and discipline, which isn’t ingrained in our DNA as apple-growing entrepreneurs. One is good, 10 is better, 14 million is best.
Most importantly, growers and marketers have one shot to capture consumer demand for a new variety of this magnitude, and we can’t afford a hiccup at the time of launch.
Ask proprietary variety licensees what it takes to make a new variety successful and you’ll hear a different story from each. That said, it all starts with the apple — providing a consistent high-quality apple that exceeds expectation again, again and again. And then comes the money for promotional support, when “enough” shouldn’t be a word in your vocabulary.
Using all of the appropriate aphorisms in one sentence: “We have one shot,” “This is our moment” and “There’s no room for error” come to mind. To quote Patrick Stewart, who played the second-most famous captain of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise and boldly went where no man had gone before, “Make it so!” •