The Next Big Thing is a grower cooperative that formed this summer to bring new fruit varieties to market. The cooperative involves five grower-packer-shippers in Nova Scotia, New York, Minnesota, and Washington State, who represent 45 grower members. The first variety they will manage is the yet-unnamed Minnesota 1914 released this year by the University of Minnesota, and licensed to Pepin Heights Orchards, Lake City, Minnesota.
Dennis Courtier, chief executive officer at Pepin Heights, said the companies involved in the cooperative have been working together already to produce and market Honeycrisp and are in the right geographic locations to grow quality fruit.
The first commercial-size plantings of MN 1914 will go in the ground in 2008. Fruit should be available in significant volumes in 2011.
Courtier said each of the Next Big Thing members will sell the apples, primarily within their region, but a marketing committee composed of the top marketing and sales people at each packing house, will set a single price. Tim Byrne, vice president for sales and marketing at Pepin Heights, is president of the cooperative.
Fruit packed and sold under the Next Big Thing brand will have to meet certain standards to ensure consistent quality and presentation.
Although volumes of the MN 1914 will probably be limited to less than a million boxes, Courtier said the key to a successfully managed apple variety is controlling quality rather than quantity.
“A lot of people have it in their heads that if you can control quantity, you can somehow control the price,” he said. “It’s one of those simple answers that’s completely wrong, like most simple answers. Price is a function of demand. I can think of a lot of apple varieties you can control 100 percent on volume, but they still wouldn’t be worth anything because they’re not good.”
In Washington last season, Honeycrisp sold for an average of more than $40 a box, compared with $22.05 a box for Cripps Pink/Pink Lady, and a $16.19-a-box average for all apple varieties, according to Washington Growers Clearing House Association figures.
“I’m convinced if there were 10 million boxes of really great Honeycrisp, there would not be enough,” Courtier said.
Pepin Heights has been a pioneer of Honeycrisp—which is not a managed variety—and is one of the largest suppliers of Honeycrisp in the Midwest. As well as having 70 acres of Honeycrisp himself, Courtier packs and markets the variety for about 40 other growers. Two years ago, Courtier formed an alliance with Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, Washington, to market and promote Honeycrisp and other niche varieties.
Courtier said he was able to secure the license from the University of Minnesota to grow, pack and sell MN 1914 in North America because of his track record with Honeycrisp.
He considers MN 1914, which is a cross of Honeycrisp and Zestar, to be even better than Honeycrisp. It has a denser flesh than Honeycrisp and has both high sugar and acid levels, which give it a more complex flavor.
The Next Big Thing isn’t managing any other varieties yet, but is looking internationally for candidates. Courtier said his philosophy is that if you don’t make your own products obsolete, someone else will do it for you.
“It’s not about one variety,” he said. “It’s about varieties that really have the intrinsic quality to make it a true brand.” For fruit breeders interested in launching a new variety in North America, the grower-owned cooperative lets them to test the variety coast to coast simultaneously, develop an appropriate marketing plan, and quickly bring the variety into commercial production, he said.