May 11, 2017
Washington bets big on new Cosmic Crisp apple

Witness the bared power of a united Washington state apple industry: More than 11 million trees planted in a two-year span. More than 10 million boxes produced in the first five years. Estimates of a quarter-billion to a half-billion dollars spent on establishment costs. An unprecedented level of cooperation among competitors.

And all for a single variety.

The industry is all in on Cosmic Crisp, the trademark name for WA 38, a new apple developed by Washington State University (WSU) and exclusive to Washington growers for at least a decade. Commercial plantings started this spring, at just under 700,000 trees. About 5.2 million to 5.5 million trees will be planted in 2018, followed by roughly the same number in 2019, according to Kathryn Grandy, director of marketing for Proprietary Variety Management (PVM), the company that’s managing the apple’s commercial release.

Grandy said the first commercial crop is expected in 2019 – perhaps a few hundred thousand boxes. The 2020 crop will be “significantly larger,” and the 2021 crop larger still.

Robert Kershaw, CEO of Domex Superfresh Growers and chairman of the committee that’s advising WSU and PVM on the launch of Cosmic Crisp, said many club varieties have taken 10 years to reach 1 million boxes, whereas Cosmic Crisp will reach 10 million boxes in its first five years of production.

“This kind of launch has never been done before,” Kershaw said. “It’s more like the typical product launch of a gigantic company.”

It’s also a gamble, Kershaw said – but everything apple growers do is a gamble.

Risk vs. reward

In a lengthy LinkedIn post, Byron Phillips, a national crop specialist with Valent USA based in Wenatchee, Washington, detailed the nature of the risk the state’s industry is taking by banking so much on a single variety. Growers will plant nearly 12 million Cosmic Crisp trees between 2017 and 2019, he wrote. At an average tree spacing of 4 feet by 10 feet, the planting density will be 1,089 trees per acre – on about 11,000 acres.

Orchard establishment costs – trees, trellises, land prep, irrigation, etc. – typically run about $25,000 per acre. If land acquisition is included, the figure easily doubles to about $50,000 per acre. So, according to Phillips’ rough calculations, the Washington apple industry will pay between $275 million and $550 million on establishment costs for a single variety – all in a two-year span.

“What makes this investment an even bigger gamble is that it is being made on a variety that the end consumer has never tasted, never seen and never heard of,” Phillips wrote. “Not to mention that we really don’t know much yet about how to grow or store it.”

The few Cosmic Crisps Phillips has eaten have been crisp, sweet and juicy, but their appearance has been inconsistent. If the variety is going to succeed, marketing desks will have to figure out how to sell it based on flavor and crunch instead of appearance, he wrote.

“That would be quite an accomplishment, given that for every other variety we grow, farmers are paid based on fruit cosmetics.”

Not to mention Cosmic Crisp will have to compete for shelf space with varieties like Evercrisp, Envy, Jazz, MN55, Fuji, Gala and Honeycrisp, according to Phillips.

“It will be interesting to look back in 15 years and see if this gamble paid off,” he wrote.

Grandy, PVM’s marketing director, described it as more of an “educated risk” than a gamble. She said WSU research has shown that WA 38 is consumer-friendly – delicious, pretty and shapely – and grower-friendly, with good growing and storage characteristics.

She also said many consumers are already familiar with Cosmic Crisp. It’s been in the news quite a bit. And as a sweet, red apple, it has export potential in China and Southeast Asia.

Tom Auvil, a research horticulturist with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, said Cosmic Crisp’s storage characteristics give it substantial potential as an organic apple.

Grandy said PVM is working closely with WSU and the industry advisory committee on a comprehensive marketing plan. By the time the apple is ready to launch, there will be a robust sales effort in place.

“The whole industry is working together on this,” Kershaw said. “That’s powerful.” Most of the industry is represented on the advisory committee, which Kershaw chairs. So far, they’ve reached a consensus on every major decision, including uniform packaging across all companies. Every box of Cosmic Crisp will have the same look.

“That’s never happened before,” Kershaw said. “I’ve never seen competitors put their brands aside to do what’s best for the overall industry.”

Many decisions still need to be made before the launch of Cosmic Crisp. The next step will be deciding on consistent quality standards, Kershaw said.
Like all new varieties, Cosmic Crisp’s success could be variable, based on what mature orchards produce as far as skin edibility, flesh, pressures and overall flavor, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee.

“Then of course you have grower issues like yield, storage, packing, harvest window, size and bearing,” Pepperl said. “Today, the issues seem conquerable, but time will tell.”

Kershaw expects Cosmic Crisp plantings to drop off somewhat in 2020, but it’s possible they’ll keep rising. Growers are always taking out old trees and putting in new ones.

“Anybody who tells you exactly how this will work is kidding themselves,” Kershaw said. “There’s no path to follow.”

The details on Cosmic Crisp

Washington State University’s (WSU) fruit breeding program developed WA 38 – branded as Cosmic Crisp – and the university owns the patent and trademark. It held its first drawing for trees in 2014. All Washington state growers were eligible to participate, said Kathryn Grandy, director of marketing for Proprietary Variety Management (PVM), a Yakima, Washington-based company that’s assisting WSU with the branding, licensing and collecting of royalties for Cosmic Crisp.

All nurseries registered with the Northwest Nursery Improvement Institute, an industry association, can sell WA 38 trees. WSU charges a royalty of $1 per tree, plus 4.75 percent when the sale is greater than $20 a box, Grandy said.

The Cosmic Crisp brand is exclusive to Washington state growers for its first 10 years of commercialization (which started with the first tree drawing in 2014), a period that could be extended for another 10 years. There will be some small international commercialization as well, she said.

Cosmic Crisp was developed by crossing Enterprise and Honeycrisp in 1997. The tree is upright and spreading with moderately low vigor. It will start producing fruit at a younger age, with spur development beginning on 2-year-old wood. The fruit ripens in late September, according to WSU.

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— Matt Milkovich

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