Sep 3, 2008
Niche Apple Varieties Belong in Farmers’ Roadside Markets

Growers who sell apples directly to customers through their own retail efforts need a strategy different from those who grow apples for wholesale distribution.

They need to identify quality “second-tier” apples, grow small volumes of several of them and have “something different” to offer every two weeks or so as they move through the marketing season from mid-July through Halloween.

That strategy was outlined by Duane Greene and Jon Clements, two University of Massachusetts (UMass) horticulturists who studied the best approach for growers in their state – as determined by a study of the preferences of people who frequent farm markets. Their observations seem suited for growers anywhere who sell through roadside markets or farmers’ markets.

“The most profitable growers of apples today are those who sell directly to the public through roadside stands,” according to a paper they wrote this year, after doing a study of consumer reaction to what they called “new, antique and little-known apple varieties.”

Massachusetts was once a significant wholesale producer of apples, especially of McIntosh, which does well in the Northeast. While the climate favors production of high-quality apples, they wrote, other areas with longer seasons, more intense sunlight, easier growing conditions and cheaper labor get higher yields and better returns.

“Wholesale production of apples in Massachusetts has declined rapidly,” they wrote, “and the number of farms growing apples has been significantly reduced.”

Still, the state has more than 100 orchards and produces nearly a million bushels of apples a year. Not bad for a state that ranks 45th out of 50 in size. It ranks 16th in apple production and third in population density, however, so growers have customers close by.

The horticulturists looked at a number of possibilities for Massachusetts growers. Consumers, they said, have learned over the last few years that they can like apple varieties other than the most popular ones available in commercial channels. While supermarkets have added a few new varieties to the apple displays in recent years, they barely scratch the surface of all the varieties they might offer.

“The quality of apples found in large grocery stores is frequently fair at best, due to a number of factors including long storage, improper handling, the long period of time in transit and pre-harvest and post-harvest treatments that may suppress ripening and taste development,” they wrote. “It is little wonder that the per-capita consumption of apples in the U.S. has remained flat for many years.”

Greene and Clements also note that new varieties with promising qualities are frequently tied up by “club” growers and marketers and unavailable to others. Farm marketers are fortunate to have varieties like Honeycrisp available to them, because new varieties like Ambrosia, Piñata, MN 1914 and NY 674 are restricted.

“Initially, it seemed most unfortunate that Massachusetts growers would be excluded from purchasing trees of the newest and best apple varieties,” they wrote.

But, on looking closer, they found a group of second-tier varieties that provide a unique opportunity to roadside marketers. These varieties may have a short post-harvest life, or be “cosmetically challenged,” or be too small, but they are otherwise excellent. In addition, consumers in certain regions tend to favor varieties that have become historic favorites – like McIntosh and Cortland in the Northeast.

“We believe that customers who shop at roadside stands may be more quality conscious, are interested in purchasing something that is different and good, and are willing to pay a premium for apples that are available only at roadside stands,” Greene and Clements wrote.

“We suggest that growers select several new, different or antique varieties and plant them.”

They also suggest these plantings be made on precocious and dwarfing rootstocks and be planted in small volumes, to generate perhaps 50 to 250 bushels that could be harvested at peak quality and sold over three or four weeks, before giving way to the next niche apple for the next season.

Rather than just fly with this theory, Clements and Greene decided to try it out. They have been growing and evaluating new varieties at the UMass Cold Spring Orchard Research and Education Center for 25 years and recently started a farm stand. They have offered customers an opportunity to taste new varieties and provide feedback. From this base, they devised a formal study.

They chose 20 varieties for their study – varieties many people have never heard of but that the researchers thought had interesting properties. They took care to harvest them at the correct time, and asked customers to rate them for taste, crispness, juiciness, firmness, texture and overall appearance.

Apples that got the best ratings (excellent) were Akane, Creston, Hudson, Liberty, MN 1914, NJ 90 and Shizuka.

Fuller descriptions of these apples are included in their paper. It was published in Fruit Notes last summer and is also on the Internet at www.umassfruit.com/variety.

The apple varieties that got “very good” ratings were Crimson Crisp, Sansa, Silken and Zestar!

The varieties Arlet, Candy Crisp, Daybreak Fuji, Shamrock and Pinova rated “good.”

Three varieties – Chinook, Hawkeye Delicious and Topaz – rated “fair.” Hawkeye Delicious is thought to be the original “antique” Delicious found in Iowa in 1872, and not the more cosmetically pleasing modern mutation. While large, firm and sweet, it ranked rock bottom of the 20 in this study.

The apple buyers were also asked what varieties they normally purchase. Their responses did not “match” national apple consumption figures. Red Delicious, for example, accounts for 26 percent of U.S. apple production, but only 2 percent of those in the study said they routinely buy them at the store. McIntosh was bought four times as often by these buyers than it is nationally, and nearly 16 percent preferred Macoun, which isn’t one of the top 10 national varieties. Similarly, Honeycrisp is not a top 10 national variety, but one in eight of the Massachusetts buyers buy it routinely.

“The apple purchasing habits of customers who frequent roadside stands appear to be different from those purchasing apples at grocery stores,” Greene and Clements wrote. “This should be considered an opportunity to expand the sales base.”

The study found that consumers “with a passion for certain apples” would travel some distance to get them. Moreover, the opportunity to buy new or different apples from those in stores may add to the overall consumption of apples, and merely replace one variety with another.

The study also confirmed that consumers have different tastes in apples, and that farm market operators need to have several varieties available for broad appeal.

“New varieties should be a sales focus,” they wrote, “since many of these varieties equal or surpass the market leaders (Delicious, Gala, etc.), and they are not widely available. It strongly supports the premise of this report that consumers are looking for new things to try.”





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