There’s a limit to the number of apple varieties retailers will carry, says Roger Pepperl.
Washington apple growers are fortunate to be situated in the best market in the world, says Roger Pepperl, marketing director at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee. Washington.
“We have the best market anywhere when you talk about the financial situation we have in this country, the ability to get paid, and the consumer base here. Our fruit doesn’t even have to leave the ground to be here.”
But other growing regions in the United States are Washington’s main competitors, he said, particularly when freight is expensive because of high gas prices and when trucks are in short supply.
“That’s really had a negative impact on all of us in western agriculture, whether you’re in the southern tip of California or the northern tip of Washington,” he said.
New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ontario have become bigger factors on the domestic market because the value of their product to buyers has been increased by their lower transportation costs to population centers in the East and Midwest. Most supermarkets in the country buy from those regions.
Stemilt sells about 80 percent of its apples in the United States and Canada, a number that has been fairly stable, and Pepperl sees opportunities for growth on the domestic market. It is a major supporter of the national 5 A Day program, which encourages consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables. Pepperl believes the health benefits of apples will boost demand, and he expects to see apples featured increasingly in restaurants, and fast-food outlets. He foresees more demand for value-added products, such as fresh sliced apples.
Evidence of increasing demand for apples was seen the last couple of seasons when Washington apples sold at a faster pace, despite higher prices. Pepperl sees that as part of a trend.
While China is a competitor in some export markets, Pepperl believes that as it becomes more industrialized, its own people will consume more of what it produces. “We believe that although China’s absolutely got a lot of apples—and we’d be foolish not to think they’ll be a challenge to us—a lot of the fruit is going to be eaten domestically and in markets that are close to them.”
Pepperl sees Southern Hemisphere production as complementary to Washington’s, since Chile or New Zealand can supply fresh Gala apples in the spring as an alternative to Washington Galas from long-term storage. “We have to learn when it’s their place and step away from that variety,” he said, “And we have to learn to plan our calendar around that.”
The Washington producer’s future will lie in providing a range of varieties to suit the sophisticated palate and high expectations of today’s consumers, Pepperl believes. Gala continues to be popular, and Fuji is finding new customers in the Midwest and eastern United States, as well as across Canada. He thinks Fuji has a bright future, as long as it is well-colored with good internal quality. Old strains of Fuji that produce light-colored fruit on the second and third picks are not what the domestic market wants.
But the amount of shelf space that retailers will devote to apples is limited, he noted.
Minor varieties will have to fit into a plan that involves rotating varieties, he believes. For example, the plan might include Honeycrisp and Jonagold in the fall, followed by Pink Lady, and perhaps Piñata in the winter, since it stores well.
“I think year-round availability of product is often thought of as a good idea, and it is in many cases, such as Gala. But quite honestly, the retail shelf space in the summertime does not allow us to have the amount of space we have in the wintertime. I think seasonality of varieties is undervalued.”
Honeycrisp, for example, is sold only in the fall when it is fresh and good, so consumers have good experiences with it.
“I think seasonality is an important thing,” Pepperl said.
“We need to take away the staticness of the apple category with the same five varieties 52 weeks of the year. We don’t need 12 months of club varieties.”
New varieties have affected demand for Red Delicious, but Washington’s Red Delicious volume has dropped to levels that make sense for the industry, he said. Red Delicious that have gone out of production were the poorer quality strains or grown on the poorer sites, with the result that the remaining Red Delicious are better quality.
He attributes stronger demand for Washington apples overall to a number of changes the industry has made, including improved varieties, new horticultural practices and products, advances in storage and packing technology, stronger sales organizations, and consolidation of the industry.