Nov 4, 2011
New varieties, consumer demand shaping tree fruit trends

The demand for more and better fruit from consumers and the vast amount of new varieties are currently driving the tree fruit industry.

Higher densities

High-density systems and fruit trees on dwarfing rootstock have to be the most important trends in production – specifically the M.9 rootstock and its variants, said Pete Van Well, a nursery owner from Wenatchee, Wash. Where orchardists used to plant a few hundred trees per acre, they now plant thousands of trees per acre.

Thanks to dwarfing rootstocks, growers have several alternatives when it comes to planting and managing their orchards – and not just in apples, he said. Cherries, pears and other tree fruit varieties are all switching to the benefits of high density.

High-density systems can produce more and better fruit with the same amount of inputs or less, Van Well said.

Variety is the spice of life

Today, apple growers have access to more varieties than ever before, said Jim Luby, director of the University of Minnesota’s breeding program. The same can be said for other tree fruits as well. The reason is there are more breeders, Luby said, both from public institutions and private programs.

What makes retailers excited is when a variety builds store traffic and makes them lots of money, said Desmond O’Rourke, an economics professor at Washington State University. The hot item right now is Honeycrisp. It appears to have special appeal to high-income consumers.

Luby also noticed a trend in the consumer’s appetite for apples that seems to parallel the wine industry.

“When you have more varieties and more variations in price points, you get this parallel where some consumers are driven toward the higher-end product with the premium price,” Luby said. “As in wine, you have your high-end, expensive wines, but there is also a tremendous market for the less expensive wines that offer a good experience as well. It has growers and retailers handling produce in a slightly different mindset.”

For apples, no variety has caused as much stir recently as the SweeTango did with Minnesota growers. Developed at the University of Minnesota from the same team, headed by Luby, that released the Honeycrisp, SweeTango is a cross between Honeycrisp and Zestar.

The variety is licensed exclusively to Pepin Heights Orchards, Lake City, Minn., via the Next Big Thing marketing group. Minnesota growers who aren’t members of Next Big Thing can grow a limited number of SweeTango.

Some Minnesota growers wanted full access to SweeTango, and sued the university and Pepin Heights to get it. The lawsuit, filed last year, was recently settled, with the judge ruling mainly for the defendants. Stories about the controversy appeared in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet.

Club, or managed, varieties such as SweeTango are growing in popularity, providing a control of supply and demand and much needed funds for marketing, said Susan Brown, a horticulturist and apple breeder with Cornell University.

“I see most breeding programs offering apples with a unique mix for the smaller wholesalers and retailers, along with u-pick and roadside markets,” she said. “Heirlooms have a following because they have a history and a compelling story, but our new hybrids are better. Heirlooms went out of favor for a reason, and some may be profitable on a small scale but not on a large volume. We need to do a better job of explaining why a variety is good and offering consumers a chance to sample it prior to purchase.”

Not everyone is on the club variety bandwagon, however, O’Rourke said. With so many varieties available, and retailers talking about moving toward smaller stores with reduced space for produce, the chances of success for any one variety are likely to get slimmer.

Marketers and retailers are already trying to find new varieties to which they can have exclusive rights, O’Rourke said. It is not clear how many producers will benefit from this trend.

“I am not as concerned about club varieties as I used to be,” said Matt Moser of Moser Fruit Tree Sales. “I feel that there are likely too many club varieties and that few of them will have the success in the market that they wish. I think that there may likely be as many ‘dogs’ in the club variety category as ‘winners’. Time and the marketplace will tell.”

O’Rourke said university breeding programs in Washington and New York are trying to limit access to new varieties to in-state producers. Organizations like Prevar, headquartered in New Zealand, are trying to give preferential access to the members of the consortium that have funded the research and development of the new variety.

“This search for exclusivity will prevent the development of another blockbuster variety like Gala,” O’Rourke said.

For cherries, not much has changed in tart varieties. Montmorency is 95 percent of what is grown, said Greg Lang, a Michigan State University horticulturist.

In sweet cherries, Bing still reigns supreme, but other varieties are taking shares of the market, Lang said. Rainier and Sweetheart are gaining a lot of ground, especially in areas that aren’t suited to growing Bing – and because of the extended growing seasons the new varieties offer.

“With regard to sweet cherries, Sweetheart and Chelan are standouts because they helped extend the cherry season beyond Bing,” Van Well said.

Most of the major fruit tree nurseries are concentrating on producing larger blocks of fewer varieties and sports, Moser said. Minor-demand varieties or sports, heirlooms and older varieties are getting much more difficult to find in quantity. Some nurseries are phasing out production of certain types of fruits, such as some stone fruit.

“This leaves only a few nurseries producing peaches, plums and other similar stone fruit, except cherry, and then these producers may limit their bud lists to only the most demanded varieties,” Moser said. “This hurts the introduction of new varieties.”

Nursery production

Fruit tree nursery production will be very tight for the next few years, Moser said. Nurseries have been going through a difficult period of production due to weather-related factors, and so their bud takes have been somewhat less than normal for the past couple of years. Additionally, damage to orchards in Washington is creating increased pressure on the amount of rootstock available to bud.

“There are limits to the amount of total trees that can be produced in any one year, and ramping up production of rootstocks and tree production will take several years to catch up,” Moser said. “Of course, it will catch up, and then the opposite, overproduction, will likely happen.”

By Derrek Sigler, Associate Editor

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