Honeycrisp apples prove power of consumer push
In Minnesota's early days, the U.S. state's long, frigid winters created doubt that the land could sustain serious agriculture.
Today however, years of hard work have placed Minnesota on the map as a cold-weather apple innovator. Although it cannot sustain big name varieties like Red Delicious, Fuji or Granny Smith, the University of Minnesota now boasts 26 apple cultivars as part of its breeding program.
Hands down, Honeycrisp has risen to the top in terms of popularity at the university, and has even claimed the title as the state's official fruit.
As the program's Dr. James Luby explained, the road to Honeycrisp success has not been easy.
"It has many, many problems. It has enough problems to keep another generation of scientists busy in postharvest and production issues, from low vigor to bitter pit to soft scald," he told industry professionals yesterday at an international apple breeding seminar in Santiago, Chile.
In the testing phase in the 1970s, the variety was discarded as too weak and incapable of survival. The cultivar went to the wayside, only to be rediscovered by Luby's team in the 1980s.
Even then, with more dedicated research, the cultivar was slow to catch on.
"In 1990s, there were years when a million trees of Honeycrisp were burned by the nurseries because of the slow uptake of the variety, because of the many problems, as the growers found out," Luby said.
"When the price received so far has averaged well over US$50 per carton, growers and others along the supply chain have been willing to think about okay, how can we handle this variety differently?" Luby explained.
"Consumers have liked it. There has been consumer pull through the market, so even though every grower will probably curse it, most people who handle the cold storage and the supply chain will curse it because of the many problems, they all smile when they see that check received and they've made money."
Though Honeycrisps may create a headache for producers, Luby explained a sort of grassroots campaign from consumers that motivated growers to keep the variety on the shelves.
Between the U.S. and Canada, an estimated 8 million cartons of this tricky variety were sold in 2012. That figure is expected to rise to 20 million by 2020.
As the variety has taken ahold in the U.S., however, control over the cultivar has become more difficult. The U.S. patent for the fruit expired in 2008, forcing the fruit to become an "open" variety and complicating the possibility of a unified marketing effort.
As a result, the breeders have promoted growth outside of the U.S., creating managed programs in the European Union, South Africa and New Zealand. At the moment, 250 hectares of the fruit are planted in the E.U., where most acreage is found in France and Germany. Around 50 hectares are planted in South Africa.
A major part of international success has been branding, Luby explained. Names like "Honeycrisp" and "HoneyCrunch," as the fruit is marketed in New Zealand, ring well in consumer ears.
"Once you’ve developed your baby, you need to give the baby a good name. Choosing a good name for an apple is one of the most difficult things we struggle with, as breeders and as partners in commercializing apples," he said.
With a name like Honeycrisp that basically explains itself, Luby said the fruit pulls buyers in. He said, just hearing the name, the consumer can already image biting into a sweet, crunchy apple.