New York Apple Sales’ owner Kaari Stannard and Tenley Fitzgerald, walk through an orchard

Apr 7, 2022
New York Apple Sales’ innovation drives growing

Effectively working with growers, embracing technology and marketing its products in new ways are key elements to the success of New York Apple Sales.

The emergence of newer generations should also influence the future of the organization, which does business as Yes! Apples.

For more than 100 years, the Glenmont, New York, grower, packer, shipper and sales and marketing agent has supplied Empire State apples from one of the country’s most picturesque growing regions in the Lake Ontario and Champlain and Hudson valley regions.

Relying heavily on the wisdom of its growers, NYAS does a lot of work marketing the taste and benefits of northeast apples. The Yes! Apples brand markets 20-plus varieties.

More than 50 growers supply nine packing facilities from orchards throughout New York. Primary production and packing, however, is in western New York, with some orchards near the shores of Lake Ontario. In that region, more than 35 growers supply apples to the packing plants. Other production originates from the northeast’s Champlain and Hudson valleys, plus NYAS’ own acreage.

Yes! Apples logoThe company’s business model involves its president and owner, Kaari Stannard (pictured, left, in image above), a sales team, a marketing staffer, plus production, logistics and accounting personnel who drive the company.

“Our team here is made up of people who are passionate about what they do and dedicated to the industry,” said Stannard. “Many are long-standing employees. We all love what we do and that we get to bring something healthy and delicious to our customers.”

An integrated company from growing to marketing, NYAS distributes apples throughout the East Coast, into the Midwest and Texas with large sales in the Northeast and Florida.

“The advantage of our business model is we have the size and scale that can compete with Washington state,” said Matt Wells, vice president of operations and food safety. “If our nine facilities tried to market their fruit independently, it would be a tough struggle to get into large retailers. But for us, because we are a collective of packing facilities, we have the volume and size and can engage with the larger stores. It’s why we’re successful. We are a bunch of little companies that can operate at a larger scale.”

apples picked by hand
As robotic technology continues to evolve, apples are still best picked by hand, said Matt Wells, New York Apple Sales. Photos: NYAS

Apple century legacy

NYAS begin in 1919 in Menands, New York, when Max Michaelson bought apples from area orchards and sold them to Albany, New York, area markets through Max Michaelson Produce. In 1960, Herman Michaelson, Max’s son, bought Hudson Storage & Ice Corp., Michaelson Inc. A 1970 merger with Storm King Fruit Growers Sales Corp. brought United Apple Sales.

After Herman Michaelson died, Martin (Marty) Michaelson, Herman’s son and later, Stannard’s stepfather, assumed control of the company. United Apple Sales changed to NYAS in 1992.

In high school, Stannard picked apples at Michaelson’s groves and joined the family business after college in 1997. A certified public accountant, she performed numerous functions. In 2000, Stannard purchased the company. Her mentor, Marty Michaelson, died the following year.

A former U.S. Apple Association chair and treasurer of the U.S. Apple Export Council, Stannard has received recognition from industry publications and is considered an industry advocate.

NYAS’ growers harvest from more than 5,000 acres, a third of New York’s fresh apple crop. It also imports from Chile, New Zealand and Nova Scotia. Handling marketing for many growers and packers, NYAS in 2008, bought equity ownership in Lake Ontario Fruit. In 2010, it partnered with Rod Farrow of Fish Creek Orchards. Stannard became a partner with Pomona Packing and with grower partners also formed Fish Creek Farms Apple Orchards.

Updated marketing

In 2019, NYAS introduced the Yes! Apples brand and changed its marketing focus, moving to a more consumer-facing marketing involving the company connecting directly with shoppers beyond the produce aisle. Instead of merely applying a company brand to consumer packages and bags, NYAS talks directly to consumers who upon entering a produce department may not be thinking about where the apples are grown. Lifestyle content and online partnerships help the company tell its story of the heritage farming operations, sustainability initiatives and growing practices.

“We are talking about apples in a very different way,” said Tenley Fitzgerald (pictured, right, in image at top), vice president of marketing. “This is something that hasn’t really been done before. We are kind of putting on a consumer product hat and thinking about center store mentality and techniques as a business strategy. We’re applying those principles to a category where it has not taken place to-date.”

Chelsea Van Acker, manager of field services for New York Apple Sales.

Adopting a “hands on” approach to growers, Stannard, Wells and Chelsea Van Acker, manager of field services, work closely with growers. The growers are viewed as partners. Though that word can often be overused or undervalued, it’s a true partnership, one where Stannard cares deeply about the challenges growers face and the bigger things affecting them, said Fitzgerald.

“Our close relationship with the growers is one of the things that sets Yes! Apples apart,” said Stannard. “A favorite part of my job is getting to talk with our growers. Many are family-owned and operated farms. We believe in this. It’s a cornerstone of our ability to provide quality apples to consumers.”

On value of NYAS’ growers, Wells cites Paul Wafler of Wafler Farm and Wafler Nursery, a second-generation Wolcott, New York, grower and International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) 2019 Grower of the Year. “Paul is not just big in horticultural practices, but technology as well,” said Wells. Wells noted Wafler’s technological platform he markets to other growers.

Forward thinking

Farrow, Fish Creek Orchards’ co-owner and former IFTA president, is highlighted as an innovative grower. Farrow is a twice winner of grower publications’ Grower of the Year awards.

“The more progressive growers are turning over the acreage quicker,” said Wells. “They’re planting new club varieties and upgrading orchards at a faster pace. They’re using the latest in high density systems.”

Many growers harvest from 1,500-2,000 trees an acre.

“These growers tend to be leading the horticultural skills to run those types of production systems,” said Wells. “Many are innovators.”

In western New York, Mike Zingler and son Jimmy Zingler run Zingler Farms, Kendall, New York. The younger Zingler is a technological guru, said Wells.

“He’s looking at anything tech-wise to improve the farm,” said Wells.

One project is a vision system featuring a camera mounted on a four- wheeler that rolls through orchard lanes recording fruit sizings, color and forecasting yields.

“There is some new technology out there and we have a group of our growers looking at that,” said Wells. “Jimmy, he’s young and is taking it on for his business.”

Collaboration occurs throughout the chain. “Our growers talk to each other, like what Jimmy’s doing on the farm,” said Wells. “Other growers see that and look into adopting the technology to their orchards.”

Gary Fix is one of the owners of Fix Bros. Orchard in Hudson, New York. Fix Bros. is a New York Apple Sales grower.

Technology drive

NYAS’ growers employ technological solutions to gain better orchard insights. Solutions are needed to counter not only the shortages of workers to pick and pack growers’ crops, but to also keep a lid on labor costs. NYAS’ packing facilities are looking into technology, including additional automation. Wells recently visited a Nova Scotia packing partner and saw NYAS could adopt automation, including robotics.

Implementing technology at the orchard level is critical to NYAS’ success. While the industry is looking into orchard robotics, Wells said he believes it will be a decade before growers see that kind of advancement. Today, apples are still best picked by hand.

“Someday, someone will crack that nut and figure out how to mechanically harvest apples, but it’s still a long way away,” said Wells. “We still need people in the orchards, but the question is, how can you harvest more efficiently through platforms, logistics and through the orchard systems themselves.”

Because modern orchard systems are easier to harvest and prune, labor costs can be lower. Automation technology helps improve labor and grower management of crop and crop load, said Wells.

“On the grower side, anything you can do to automate will be important,” he said. “If you’re not changing and improving your business, you won’t be here in the long term. Technology is an important part of that.”

New orchard blood

Joel Crist, owner/manager of Hudson Valley’s Crist Bros. Orchards, in Walden, New York, left his family’s business to work for a food sales and marketing organization. When he returned, Crist’s business and marketing skills benefited the operation.

Zinnia Crist and her grandmother JoyCrist
Zinnia Crist, left, and her grandmother, Joy Crist, when she was younger. Zinnia is daughter of New York Apple Sales grower partners Joel and Molly Crist.

The Zingler’s older and newer generations show the importance of encouraging newer generations to join farming operations.

Finding many of its growers in their 50s and 60s, NYAS in the early 2000s became concerned about aging demographics. In 2010, after the global financial crisis, that changed, however, when many young adults in their 20s returned to the family farm after not being able to secure jobs.

As the 25- to 45-year-olds take on their family farms, the infusion of youth should benefit New York’s apple industry. “We have another generation in,” said Wells. “We will see fifth, sixth and seventh generations (in the business). It’s a great sign and a good story.”

Because an older generation may often be less willing to change, the infusion of younger generations should help “It’s super important to have that next generation to take on farms to the next step,” said Wells. “With the new blood comes younger people who are willing to take more risks and challenge the status quo, with their different and new ideas. It will work well for our industry. It matters not what business you’re in. If you’re not changing and adopting, you won’t succeed. Without that next generation, you’re going nowhere.

– Doug Ohlemeier, assistant editor

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