Jun 3, 2009
Upper Mississippi Valley Aims To Create a Regional Apple Brand

Everyone knows that the state of Washington is a distinctive apple-growing region. It’s huge. But there are lots of others – upstate New York, western Michigan, western North Carolina, the upper Mississippi Valley.

The upper Mississippi Valley?

Fred Wescott believes the area, in southern Minnesota, west central Wisconsin and northern Iowa on the fertile bluffs bordering the Mississippi River, can thrive in the wholesale apple market by creating and sustaining an identity that distinguishes it from the rest of the production regions.

Wescott is an apple packer in Elgin, Minn. He packs regionally produced apples under the Mississippi Valley Fruit Co. name. He also packs apples from other areas to provide a year-round supply to his customers, mostly upper Midwestern grocery stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas. The regional production is an important component of a year-round national production and distribution business that operates under the Wescott Agri Products Inc. umbrella.

There are about two dozen growers in the region who market their fruit under the Mississippi Valley label. That component of the business only accounts for a quarter million boxes of the fruit that Wescott markets, but, he says, it is important to the retailers who are looking for ways to differentiate themselves from their competition by providing unique, regionally correct products.

The relatively small size of the industry presents challenges, but opportunities as well, he said. A main challenge is to consolidate enough production so that programs can be offered to a retail industry that is dominated by large multi-store chains.

“Supply assurance is essential to the retail program success,” he said.

The small size also limits the resources that are available to promote the programs and create the recognition that is important to the marketing success of a regional crop. Consolidating production from several growers builds supply, but can also result in variable quality, something that is unacceptable to the retail buyers, Wescott said.

“By consolidating the supply under one regionally recognized label and controlling the packing and quality of the finished product, these obstacles can be overcome,” he said.

What growers need to do, he said, is:

– Collaborate to establish a regional identity and promote their products as “regionally correct.”

– Develop and use Good Agricultural Practices – especially Integrated Pest Management programs and low-environmental-impact farming practices.

– Grow high quality varieties that help distinguish the region from others.

– Grow varieties that local growers can grow well.

– Don’t sell low quality fruit.

Don’t try to compete for the year-round apple market but rather focus on a seasonal window.

“We are working with our growers to put such a program, in place” Wescott said.

The company is working to provide high quality safe food and production facilities with third party certification; helping growers identify varieties that should be planted for future production; and developing packaging and promotion programs that can be used by retailers in their sales programs.

“We can’t out-produce our demand if we do it right,” he told growers at the Wisconsin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Conference last winter. Since then, some of the ideas he presented have been fleshed out and put onto the company’s Web site, www.wescottorchard.com.

Some great varieties

One of the major advantages the area has now is some good varieties, resulting from a combination of skillful breeding and good luck. Who would ever guess that the consumer-exciting variety Honeycrisp, with its distinctive crunch, would come out of a breeding program in a state with very small apple production and that had winter hardiness as its foundational goal?

“The growing conditions here are not really good,” Wescott said. “A better description is, unique.”

Unlike New York and Michigan, where winter temperatures are moderated by the Great Lakes, temperatures in Minnesota and Wisconsin can plummet to –40˚ F. Apple varieties like Golden Delicious and Red Delicious can’t survive.

Luckily, the area is well-served by an apple breeding program at the University of Minnesota that for a century has produced cold hardy apples and, more recently, apples with unique flavors and textures that have captured the attention of American consumers. Like Honeycrisp and Zestar!

Jim Luby and his colleague David Bedford have released several new varieties in the last 15 years, but the program is much older. The U-M program started in 1878 with one overriding goal: To provide homestead owners with apples that would survive cold temperatures so they could have fruit like folks elsewhere. Apples were the logical fruit of choice, Luby said, and much of the initial breeding stock came from Russia and New England.

“Temperatures here in the Twin Cities will fall to –35˚F one year in 10,” Luby said. “And 200 miles north of here, it reaches that temperature every year and drops to –50 some years.”

Not surprisingly, the university established a testing station there, at Grand Rapids, Minn., where all elite selections still go for testing. (The scientists today also use freezers for testing.) The winter of 1917-18 was the coldest on record in this coldest apple breeding location in the U.S., and that screened out the weaklings, Luby said.

In 1920, the Minnesota breeders released their first variety, Minnehaha, which is no longer grown. Haralson, came out in 1922 as a seedling of Malinda, a New England variety, crossed with Wealthy, developed by Minnesota nurseryman Peter Gideon. Malinda has been a source of cold-hardy genes for several varieties since, including Honeycrisp.

The list from there has continued to lengthen: SnowSweet, Sweet Sixteen, SweeTango, Zestar!, Honeycrisp, Frostbite, State Fair, Red Baron, Honeygold, Regent, Fireside, Keepsake, Prairie Spy – some of them tart, many of them sweet, juicy, firm, crisp.

A drawback to the Minnesota apples, Luby said, is that “most of them don’t store well. Honeycrisp does keep its crunch in storage, but it has other storage problems like bitter pit and soft scald.”

Top quality in season

Wescott believes that long storage time is less a concern than it once was. Consumers are learning to eat more than two or three varieties of apples and so are more willing to enjoy a quality apple in its season, rather than wanting a single variety 12 months of the year.

Right now, he said, Honeycrisp is the only variety grown in his area that has the highest quality consumers are looking for. It is “bigger than regional,” Wescott said, but it grows well in the region and producers can handily sell all they can grow.

Other varieties that can fit into a regional brand program include Zestar!, Sweet Sixteen, Regent, Haralson, Fireside, Cortland and Paulared, he said.

Wescott is pleased with another aspect. The University of Minnesota is still turning out exceptional varieties (although Luby said none are slated for release soon). Local growers have themselves taken a keen interest in new varieties. They search their orchards by exciting sports, and some do crossbreeding on their own farms. At the show in Wisconsin, there were bags of “mystery apples” making the rounds as growers wanted others to taste what they had.

They’re all looking for the next Honeycrisp. Wescott said there are some exciting new apples not far off, some of them coming from these private breeding efforts.

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