Right from the get-go, Fred Wescott thought Honeycrisp would be a new force in the apple market. And he bet on it. He planted orchards in Minnesota and northern Washington. And, now, his company is bringing Honeycrisp into the United States from partners in Chile, starting its transformation from a fall seasonal apple.
“When Honeycrisp came out in Minnesota, it was apparent it had the ability to be far more important than other varieties,” Wescott said in an interview with Good Fruit Grower. He is president of Wescott Agri Products and Wescott Orchards, Elgin, Minnesota, which also owns Honeybear Brands, the name under which the company markets Honeycrisp apples.
As proof of his insight, Wescott Orchards planted the first Honeycrisp in the state of Washington already 20 years ago, when the variety was first released by the University of Minnesota. That was in addition to plantings made in the original Wescott Orchards in Minnesota.
It was known from the start that Honeycrisp was a finicky apple and that site selection was important, Wescott said. He chose northern Washington as the place to plant and installed overhead cooling. “Honeycrisp does not do well in hot areas,” he said.
As evidence mounted that consumers would pay a premium price for an apple they really liked, about ten years ago Wescott began to look for sites in the Southern Hemisphere where quality Honeycrisp could be grown. It was also evident then that Honeycrisp would not store well, so it could not be a year-round apple unless it could be grown in the Southern Hemisphere. He found such sites in southern Chile, south of the Santiago area where most Chilean fruit is grown, he said.
In an interview with Good Fruit Grower, Bob Solberg, the director of marketing and customer accounts for Honeybear Brands, credits Wescott with personally laying the groundwork for the Chilean venture. “Fred really worked on it,” he said. During the last ten years, Wescott evaluated pilot orchards in several Southern Hemisphere growing regions before deciding on an area of Chile that was the most conducive to consistently growing exceptional fruit, Solberg said.
This year, the first Honeycrisp arrived in the United States from the Southern Hemisphere. Fresh Honeycrisp from Chile, after 14 to 18 days on a ship, were to land
in Philadelphia in mid-May. Usually there aren’t any Honeycrisp left to buy after February.
“The Honeybear brand was created to identify Honeycrisp grown under intense management practices in the best regions,” Wescott said. “We know there are places where Honeycrisp should not be grown. But because of consumer demand and the premium prices, a lot of poor Honeycrisp will be grown, and we wanted ours to be distinguished.
“Our company is not the biggest seller of Honeycrisp, but we have been more involved in Honeycrisp than any other company, and for longer.”
Wescott has exclusive rights to production of Honeycrisp in Chile. Volume will be limited in this introduction year and should rise as the trees there mature. Wescott said they are working with a partner in Chile and that “hundreds of acres” were growing—meaning a few hundred acres, not thousands.
“We don’t want to overproduce the market,” Wescott said. “We know competitor companies are trying to put similar programs together and are planning to grow Honeycrisp in South Africa and New Zealand, but we don’t know how many or where they plan to market them. We don’t really know the size of the market.”
“Honeycrisp was the first apple to prove that consumers would pay more for a really good apple,” Wescott said. “But Honeycrisp has to be a premium-priced apple. The cost of production is higher, the yield is lower, and the packout is less. If overproduction reduces the prices, we’ll quit growing Honeycrisp.”
Wescott noted that, wherever they are grown, the variety has similar problems. “The best Honeycrisp still grows here in the Midwest, where it was developed, but our production potential here is small. We need to find good production sites elsewhere.”
Honeycrisp availability in stores at this time of year has been limited because of two factors, according to Solberg. First, demand has exceeded supply, so most Honeycrisp are sold between late August, when they start to ripen, and December. Controlled atmosphere storage protocols to extend the storage season are still being developed, so only a few stored Honeycrisp have been available in January and February. Then there are no more Honeycrisp until late August.
Honeycrisp became available for planting by any grower in the United States in 1991. Wescott Agri Products bought exclusive production and commercialization rights for Honeycrisp in Chile from the University of Minnesota.
“The development of the Chilean Honeycrisp is part of Honeybear Brands’s goal of growing, packaging, and marketing world-class varieties from the finest agricultural regions across the globe, enabling it to offer its retail partners a year-round apple program in their marketplace,” Wescott said.
Solberg said the company works closely with the retailers it serves, but there were no plans to make a big promotion with these first Honeycrisp from Chile. There will be too few of them this year, he said. Local retailers may, of course, decide to use their supplies to attract customers to their stores to buy these out-of-the-ordinary-season apples.
The Wescott organization is one of the litigants suing the University of Minnesota and Pepin Heights Orchards over the exclusive growing and marketing arrangement they developed around the SweeTango apple. Court-ordered mediation failed in March, and the case will come to court this fall. Wescott would have liked to add this apple to his distribution network. SweeTango will be marketed as a club variety by Next Big Thing, a cooperative with 64 grower members across North America.
Wescott Agri Products is privately held. It began as Wescott Orchards in the early 1970s and expanded and diversified in fruit production, packing, processing, and distribution. The company created the Mississippi Valley Fruit Company, through which 30 growers in southwest Minnesota, west central Wisconsin, and northwest Iowa sell regionally produced fruit under that label.
Wescott is an avid promoter of the Upper Mississippi area as a unique production region, with growers there able to produce high-quality apples using well-adapted University of Minnesota-developed varieties like Honeycrisp, Zestar!, Haralson, and Regent. But the region is limited in its output potential.
While distributing this regional apple crop to markets in the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin, the company also developed international relationships to serve those clients year-round with fruit from the Southern Hemisphere—Chile and New Zealand. It also created Honeycrisp Marketing and the Honeybear brand to sell that Honeycrisp to supermarkets nationally.
“In addition to the Chilean program, Wescott dedicates significant acreage to growing Honeycrisp in the Midwest and Washington,” according to Don Roper, vice president of sales and marketing for Wescott. “The company was one of the first growers of Honeycrisp in Washington, and today Honeybear is recognized as the premier Honeycrisp label in the Northwest.”
Roper credited Fred Wescott with seeing, early on, the huge potential of Honeycrisp. Honeybear Brands also works with Washington growers Crane & Crane, Smith & Nelson, and Shou Shia Wang.