A dozen years ago, apple growers were looking for “the new Honeycrisp”: a variety as popular and profitable as the Minnesota cultivar that has taken the industry by storm, but one that’s easier to grow. Many placed their hopes in the new, mostly managed varieties being released by various breeding programs. But despite their excellent qualities, none of those new apples has captured the public imagination the way Honeycrisp has.
In the meantime, U.S. growers have gotten a lot better at growing Honeycrisp. They’ve learned where to plant it and which rootstock and spacing work best. They’ve finagled how to make it redder and how to stretch its picking window. And although they haven’t solved major problems like bitter pit and biannual bearing, they’ve found ways to manage them.
And because Honeycrisp remains by far the most profitable apple per pound, fewer growers want to gamble on new, untested varieties these days.
“Honeycrisp feels like more of a sure thing to be planting,” said Michigan grower Elizabeth Pauls of Wittenbach Orchards. “I don’t love it, but it sells, so you can’t say no to that.”
Pennsylvania’s Adams County Nursery is producing more Honeycrisp trees than it was 10 years ago, including new strains, said President Jen Baugher.
“Consumers still love Honeycrisp, and growers are constantly learning more about best growing and storage practices, so we haven’t seen a slowing of demand,” she said.
So, you might say Honeycrisp is the new Honeycrisp.
Difficulties doubling down
“Honeycrisp is probably the most difficult variety we deal with,” said Scott Henning, chief operating officer of Lake Ontario Fruit Inc., a New York packer.
It’s more prone to storage disorders like soft scald and soggy breakdown than other varieties, and its large swings in crop size from year to year cause packing, storage and marketing headaches, Henning said.
But the biggest challenge, according to growers, is having enough pickers available during Honeycrisp harvest.
“Over two-thirds of everything we grow is harvested in the first two weeks of September,” said Pennsylvania grower Mark Boyer.
More growers are hiring H-2A guest workers these days, but the program is expensive, and housing remains a limiting factor. Washington grower Jason Matson said that for every acre of Honeycrisp he plants, he has to add one to two beds for his H-2A workers.
To extend the harvest window and manage that labor demand, many growers use plant growth regulators such as Harvista and ReTain.
Some growers extend Honeycrisp harvest by spreading their plantings across a wide geographic area. In New York, Jason Woodworth’s Honeycrisp blocks stretch from half a mile south of Lake Ontario, where it’s cooler, to 8 miles south of the lake, where they harvest a few days earlier, he said.
The Ferguson family has seven orchards spread across Wisconsin and Minnesota; Honeycrisp, on a mix of old and new plantings, makes up more than three-quarters of their apple acreage. During harvest, they haul their workers, equipment and vehicles from orchard to orchard, picking for a few days at each before moving on to the next, Joe Ferguson said.
The peak labor need for Stemilt Growers in Washington state is during Gala and Honeycrisp harvest. Spreading Honeycrisp plantings across Washington helps flatten that peak. With help from plant growth regulators and earlier strains, Stemilt’s Honeycrisp harvest will sometimes stretch from late August to early October, said President West Mathison.
Sports — earlier or redder — have become an important tool for success.
Many growers have turned to Premier Honeycrisp, a sport that ripens two or three weeks earlier than the standard version, to stretch their harvest windows and try to take advantage of early sales. But after a few years of experience, Premier’s reviews are mixed.
“In the right growing area, Premier can be a great piece of fruit, but we are seeing in our warmer sites that it doesn’t color well,” said Washington grower Jim Divis.
Boyer, in Pennsylvania, said Premier bruises more easily and doesn’t store like standard Honeycrisp, so the fruit has to move fast.
In the past six seasons in New York, Woodworth had one crop of “beautiful Premier fruit with 50 percent red color,” he said, but every other crop has struggled to color well, even with help from reflective fabric and leaf removal.
On the other hand, Pauls said Premier colors well for an early Honeycrisp in western Michigan.
The ability to color is crucial. Retailers now want Honeycrisp to be at least 50 percent red. Growers are striving to achieve that with pruning, reflective fabric and redder strains.
“Color standards for Honeycrisp keep cranking up,” Boyer said.
Royal Red Honeycrisp has been a “clear winner” for Boyer, and his first real crop of Firestorm is coming this season. Summer pruning for greater light exposure helps him hit his buyers’ color threshold of 60 percent red, he said.
The Fergusons usually get decent coloring weather in Honeycrisp’s Upper Midwest motherland, but they use mylar reflective fabric to color the apples that hide in the canopy. And, many of their new Honeycrisp plantings are Royal Red or Firestorm, Ferguson said.
To hear growers tell it, the initial wave of commercial Honeycrisp plantings in the 2000s, what some called the “Honeycrisp boom,” was more of a scramble. They either grafted old blocks over to Honeycrisp or put new plantings on any rootstock they could find. They didn’t know the best locations to plant it, and they weren’t as concerned with red skin as they would be today.
“Everybody who grows a lot of volume of Honeycrisp is still cleaning up that mess,” Boyer said.
Those early Honeycrisp plantings weren’t pretty, but they “got them in the game,” Divis said. In today’s more competitive climate, however, growers are realizing the game has changed. “Just because it’s Honeycrisp, doesn’t mean it’s going to make money,” Divis said.
Growers these days are planting newer strains of Honeycrisp on better rootstocks at tighter spacings to get higher yields per acre. They’ve also learned where Honeycrisp grows well, and how to take advantage of soil and shade.
Cornell Cooperative Extension specialist Mario Miranda Sazo said growers in Western New York are planting more Honeycrisp on Geneva rootstocks. They’ve fine-tuned nutrition programs to better manage bitter pit. They’re pruning and blossom thinning with ATS (ammonium thiosulfate) to better manage biannual bearing, he said.
Woodworth expects mechanization will continue to grow in importance. Mobile platforms are much more efficient than ladders, especially when crews are color picking and making multiple passes down the row. To aid mechanization, his newer Honeycrisp plantings are spaced 11 feet by 2 feet and hedged for two-dimensional canopies, he said.
Whatever ups and downs the future might have in store for the apple industry, nobody expects Honeycrisp to be knocked off its perch any time soon.
“It’s an apple that everybody keeps buying, eating and loving,” Boyer said. “The moment you don’t have Honeycrisp, stores stop coming to get your fruit.”
—by Matt Milkovich