Honeycrisp has changed the apple business. It’s possibly the only variety that can sell for $50 a box, noted John Rice, sales manager of Rice Fruit Company in Pennsylvania.

“What I think Honeycrisp has done is it’s changed the rules of the game, in that it proves that we can sell a box of apples for $50. Why? Because people eat it and they’re crazy about it.”

Instead of looking for cultivars that are grower friendly, the apple industry should be selecting cultivars that are consumer friendly and making sure it is producing something that the consumer wants, Rice said during the annual conference of the International Fruit Tree Association.

“What we should do is find out what people want and try to get it to them in that condition, then work on efficiencies. Instead of pushing to make it half a cent less expensive to grow the apple, let’s find something we can sell for an extra $20 a box.

“We cannot live with the prices we’ve been living with for the last 25 years— especially on the processing side.”

About 75 percent of the apples grown in the Mid-Atlantic region are processed, and the other 25 percent are sold fresh.

More fresh

Rice, a board member of Knouse Foods, said he was not pointing a finger at processors. He thought they were doing a good job for their growers, but were having a hard time competing in the world market. Eastern processors are paying growers 8 or 9 cents a pound, but have to compete with processors in Washington State who are paying only 3 cents a pound. Rice pointed out that processing apples in Washington are a byproduct of what the industry is really trying to produce, which is a higher-value fresh product.

Growers in the Mid-Atlantic region are shifting out of processing fruit, by economic necessity, and focusing more on fresh-market fruit.

The future of the eastern apple industry will be very much connected to the future of the apple industry as a whole, he said. With increasing emphasis on improving fruit varieties through new technology and the use of genomics, the future is full of interesting possibilities.

“We’re about to go through big changes in our industry,” he said. “Maybe 30 percent of the fruit will be for processing and the rest for fresh. Not all of our growers will make that transition, but the ones who do will be growing a better product than we were ten years ago and are growing today, and I think we can do it.”

A challenge in the future of the Mid-Atlantic industry is the rise in land values, Rice said, because growers can’t justify paying more than $10,000 an acre for orchard.

“We’re going to see shrinking production,” Rice predicted. “But most of that shrinkage is going to be in processing fruit. I think we have a chance to prosper if we grow the high-quality fresh fruit that we’re capable of growing and have a history of growing. Start focusing on your product instead of being embarrassed about asking $50 for a box of apples.”

Rice said the apple industry should emulate the wine industry in focusing on quality and getting paid for it. There are wineries that sell a bottle of wine that contains four servings for $100. With 88 to 100 servings in a box, quality apples should be able to command higher prices than they do now, he suggested.

“That launches us into a very exciting future,” he said.