Looking for the next big apple

A major upheaval in the apple world has seen the famed Red Delicious fall from favour as farmers experiment with newer varieties that allow growers more control over labour costs, quality, supply and, ultimately, price.

A major upheaval in the apple world has seen the famed Red Delicious fall from favour as farmers experiment with newer varieties that allow growers more control over labour costs, quality, supply and, ultimately, price.

Though increasingly disdained as flavourless by consumers, Red Delicious has long been preferred among pickers because it is quick and easy to harvest. And growers like Reds for their durability; they can be kept in cold storage for months and distributed throughout the year.

Too many growers, it seems. In 1990, Red Delicious made up almost 70 per cent of the U.S. crop. That oversupply, along with consumer demand for better tasting fruit, depressed prices.

"Everyone started looking for something else," said Dave Carlson, president of the Washington Apple Commission. "We needed to replace at least some of the Red Delicious production with something that was more profitable."

The result is even more variety for consumers: Jonagold, Braeburn, Fuji and Gala apples are becoming more and more commonplace, so much so that Red Delicious will make up just 26 per cent of the U.S. crop in 2006.

Fewer Canadian growers

Canada is importing more apples from the U.S. because there are fewer Canadian apple growers, Statistics Canada reports. Many B.C. farmers in particular have changed their apple orchards into more profitable vineyards.

The demand for new apples also has fueled extensive breeding programs. Allan Bros., which has grown and packaged tree fruit since the 1920s, planted two so-called club varieties in 2003. Club varieties are apples whose growth is tightly regulated by the patent holder, thereby ensuring limited supply, higher quality and better prices. Companies pay for the right to grow them while a single sales group oversees marketing for the crop.

Thirty growers in the United States have planted Jazz, a tart but sweet red club apple created in New Zealand by crossing Royal Gala and Braeburn varieties, with additional plantings in the United Kingdom, France and New Zealand. Acreage is fairly evenly split between the northern and southern hemispheres to ensure a supply of apples nearly year-round.

The developer of the variety, ENZA, formerly the New Zealand Apple and Pear Marketing Board, aims to have about 6,800 acres producing Jazz apples by 2010. Allan Bros. has 84 acres of them, about 10 per cent of its overall crop.

"It's an exciting opportunity to be with a group of people you know are at the top of their game and the quality is going to be the best," said Tom Allan, another Allan Bros. orchard manager. "The problem now is, we may grow the best Granny's but if someone floods the market with bad Granny's, it hurts everyone."

Crop diversity good for farmers

Crop diversity also gives growers flexibility, allowing them to avoid investing all of their money in one variety that could be damaged by weather or pests, might not yield a crop one year, or as in the case of Red Delicious, loses favor with consumers. In planting new trees, they also can space rows and trellis branches in a manner that makes picking easier.

More varieties also can mean better control over harvest costs and labour. By planting varieties that ripen at different times, farmers may be able to use fewer workers but employ them longer.

However, newer varieties certainly come with challenges. Many must be color picked, which means workers must be trained to recognize when the fruit is ripe. Other varieties, such as Fuji, require workers to clip the stems off as they pick them to prevent the apples from damaging one another.

Growers also are finding that not all apples— Honeycrisp, for example— fare well in months of cold storage.

Others, such as the new Cripps Pink variety, also known as Pink Lady, gains flavour in short-term storage, said Alan Taylor, marketing director for Pink Lady America.

For consumers, major changes in the grocery aisle take time. A new tree needs about five years to reach its commercial production potential.

"Consumers are going to see better quality. They're willing to pay more for that, but not everybody will," said Shannon Schaffer, spokeswoman for the U.S. Apple Association. "There's still going to be markets for these economical apples."

After all, Red Delicious remains the dominant crop.

"Reds were such a big portion of the industry, it will never go away entirely," he said. "But clearly consumers wanted variety, and that's what the industry is giving them."