The appeal of apples: changing consumer taste brings shift to crops grown

Fall means apple season and whether you're buying them from grocery stores, farmers’ markets or you-pick at the orchard, there seems to be a shift in the way apples are grown and the variety of apples available.

Apple growers are shifting how and what they grow to match a changing apple-loving demographic

Morning dew shines on these freshly picked apples. Food columnist Andrew Coppolino writes that the apple industry is changing the way it grows the favourite fall fruit and adapting to consumer demands for sweeter apples. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

When it comes to picking a fresh apple, it's all in the wrist, according to Ken Bender of Downey's Strawberry and Apple Farm in Breslau.

"Lift the apple up a little bit, twist and turn it over. The stem should break off at the branch but not break the branch and the apple comes free. If there's resistance, the apple needs a little bit more time," Bender said.

With apple season underway, a number of "you-pick" apple orchards, like family owned and operated Downey's, are ramping up.

It is estimated that over the course of history there have been 7,500 varieties of apples. There aren't anywhere near that number today, but for apple lovers it is currently Honeycrisp and Cortland season. It follows the arrival of Gala and McIntosh, the latter, an apple was developed in Ontario in 1811.

Then, as we move into October, November and even early January, Ambrosia, Red Delicious and Fuji varieties will start to appear. Some varieties are familiar; others like Cripps Pink or the relatively new CrimsonCrisp, both late-season apples, are less so.

Downey’s Strawberry and Apple Farm in Breslau offers "you-pick" orchards. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

The varieties and their staggered harvest over the fall and early winter makes apples versatile in the kitchen, according to chef and cooking instructor Kirstie Herbstreit of Waterloo's The Culinary Studio.

"When it comes to apple pie, you want it to hold its shape. Early-harvest Cortland, Honeycrisp or Granny Smith are my top three that will hold their shape. McIntosh, Gala are going to fall apart a little bit more," Herbstreit said.

Apple growers say industry in good shape

Overall, the Ontario apple industry — worth roughly $100 million — is strong, says Cathy McKay, chair of Ontario Apple Growers.

"I'd say the industry is in very good shape. We've had 10 to 15 years of growth and have completely changed how we grow apples," McKay said.

If you haven't been to an orchard in the last little while, there has been a significant change to the way apples are grown.

No longer the large, round trees with lots of gnarly branches — "dwarf" apple trees are more columnar and grow on trellis systems that, though they are closer together, let's more sun penetrate the fruit.

Greg Nogler of Martin's Apple Farm says they've adapted to what consumers want. “Apple growers grow what apple lovers want," he said. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

If you drive up Lobsinger Line at Martin's Family Fruit Farm, you will see older style trees along the roadside that are examples of apple tree-history; further into the orchard, the newer trellised trees are growing.

Some growers who traditionally plant orchards with 1,200 trees per acre are even experimenting with orchards of 1,950, or more, trees per acre.

The emphasis is getting the most high-quality fruit in the least amount of space and expensive land.

As the apple farmers at Martin's put it, they are in the fruit business, not in the business of growing wood on a tree.

These Honeycrisp apples at Paradise Pointe Orchard grow on trellises instead of a large tree some might picture when they think of apple trees. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Agreeing with McKay, Greg Nogler, Martin's COO, says the industry has been thriving and Martin's came through the pandemic in good condition.

"COVID-19 was, I think, probably a net positive for the apple business. I think it was a product that consumers went back to. Our sales were very strong throughout. We feel good about the state of the apple in Ontario," Nogler said.

Even the weather has helped, though the effects of climate change are often obvious. While some apple farmers in Waterloo region say they didn't get enough rain at the right time — which affected fruit size — there weren't killer frost issues in the spring.

Last year, Nogler said that they ran "frost fans" in the orchards for 12 nights, which was a very high number, he says. This year, the fans weren't needed.

"The blossoms set and the fruit came on," Nogler said.

Consumer demand for particular flavour profiles in apples has changed in the last several years as well, evident in the newer varieties of apples that have become increasingly popular.

People can fill a bag at Downey's "you-pick" orchard. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Growing trends have changed

Growers have learned that many people prefer sweeter apples rather than some of the more tart and older varieties. That, in part, is generated by changing demographics, including the arrival of new Canadians, McKay said.

"Ontario's population has changed tremendously as far what it likes in an apple. Many people here now really like sweet apples," she says.

Hence, the skyrocketing popularity of Fuji (a Japanese apple that came to the world market in the 1960s), Ambrosia, Honeycrisp (both introduced in the early 1990s) and Gala (introduced to North America from New Zealand in the 1970s).

For his part, Nogler says that apple growers don't set taste trends but rather adapt to "the tastes consumers want," he says.

"Apple growers grow what apple lovers want," Nogler said.

If you are an apple lover who wants to pick your own bag of apples, area on-farm you-picks have just opened up; the season will continue for several weeks.

Here is a selection of you-pick venues in and around Waterloo region (check ahead for apple availability and you-pick times of operation):

  • Brantview Apples and Cider (St. George).
  • Brantwood Farms (Brantford).
  • Chudleigh's Farm (Milton).
  • Downey's Strawberry and Apple Farm (Breslau).
  • Orchard Home Farm (St. George).
  • Paradise Pointe Orchard (Wellesley).


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.