When fruit marketer Randy Steensma tells growers he’s got a new World-class apple for them to plant, they tend to be wary.
“Growers are being very cautious on new varieties because there are so many to choose from,” he said.
And, if they’ve planted Honeycrisp, they know that some varieties can be a challenge to grow because of inconsistent cropping and poor packouts, for example. Once bitten, twice shy.
“We find growers ask the tough questions now,” said Steensma, who owns Honey Bear Tree Fruit Company in Wenatchee, Washington, and was among the first to plant Honeycrisp in Washington 25 years ago.
“It’s very expensive to plant an orchard any more. The price of dirt’s gone up, and with the tree cost, you’re looking at $30,000 an acre for any variety you put in the ground, so you can’t afford to make a mistake on 100 acres, 50 acres, or even 10 acres, because it’s a big mistake.”
Steensma is a partner with Barclay Crane in Pegasus Premium Fruit Company, which has acquired an exclusive license for North America to produce and market a new variety called Smitten. The variety was bred in New Zealand by Plant and Food Research and is owned by Prevar, an international variety development and commercialization company.
Smitten’s maternal grandparents are two English varieties, Fiesta and Falstaff, while its paternal grandparents are Royal Gala and Braeburn.
It’s a bicolored apple that resembles Royal Gala in appearance and size, but doesn’t split. Its blocky shape is reminiscent of European apples, but Don Zornes, sales manager at the Honey Bear Tree Fruit Company, said that gives Smitten “rack distinction” in the American grocery store.
Steensma said he’s thrilled that Smitten is bicolored, rather than red, because that will distinguish it on the retail shelf from the new strains of Gala, Fuji, and now Honeycrisp.
But what growers really want to know is: Does it give high yields? Is it a grower-friendly tree? Does it crop annually? Does it give good packouts?
Steensma answers in the affirmative, noting that the fruit also has all the characteristics that consumers look for. It’s crunchy, it’s sweet, and it has great flavor. That’s why the catch phrase for this variety is “Once bitten, forever Smitten.”
“And it’s honestly true,” Steensma said. “We’ve handed them to growers, and they’re just flat hooked on these things.”
Zornes concurred: “Everyone we give Smitten to, they love it. We know we’re onto something big.”
Smitten (cultivar PremA17) originated from a cross made in 1995. It was named in 2010 when the New Zealand marketing rights were assigned to Seventeen Limited, a partnership of six New Zealand companies: D.M. Palmer NZ, ENZA, Heartland Group, Johnny Appleseed Holdings, Mr. Apple New Zealand, and PickMee Fruit Company. There are now between 100 and 150 acres planted in New Zealand.
Pegasus Premium Fruit Company imported budwood into Washington State from New Zealand, and Brandt’s Fruit Trees in Yakima is growing trees. Three years ago, Steensma and Crane planted their first test orchard of 1,000 Smitten trees in Quincy, where growers can see and sample the variety.
“They want to see it, feel it, touch it, and taste it,” Steensma said. “These guys are big-time businessmen, and they don’t take anything lightly any more.”
Last year, Steensma and Crane made their first commercial planting of 50,000 trees. They planted another 150,000 trees this spring.
They are offering the variety to other growers in Washington, so a two-hemisphere supply of the variety can be developed. New Zealand Smitten apples will be available in the United States from May until July and Washington Smittens from September through December or January. Steensma said Smitten ripens around the same time as Gala or a few days earlier and stores well.
They also hope growers in Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania will give it a try. Their initial planting target for North America is 750,000 trees, or about 750 acres. Three Washington companies have made a commitment to grow and pack the variety: Columbia Fruit Company in Wenatchee; Valicoff Fruit Company in Yakima; and Piepel Premium Fruit Packing, a new company operated by Dave Piepel in East Wenatchee. In addition, Barclay Crane plans to build a packing plant in Quincy in a couple of years.
Meanwhile, Honey Bear Fruit Company has been doing retail sampling and test marketing using imported New Zealand Smitten to familiarize the trade with the apple and create demand in preparation for Washington supplies becoming available. The first, small crop of Washington Smitten will be harvested this fall.
“We’re taking advantage of existing production in New Zealand to develop a North American market for the Smitten apple,” Steensma said.
Initially, marketing efforts will focus on the domestic market. Other regions of the world will produce their own Smitten. For example, Worldwide Fruit Limited and Empire World Trade Limited have a license to grow Smitten in the United Kingdom. Montague Fresh has a license to produce it in Australia.
Steensma expects that as Washington apple production increases because of recent plantings, mainline varieties such as Red and Golden Delicious will be in less demand.
“What we’re trying to do is give growers another opportunity to replace those varieties as they become unprofitable, and we hope to maintain a $50 return for the grower,” he said. •