Big year anticipated for U.S. apples
Following up a lower volume season in 2012, growers out of Washington are eager to build on momentum and expand product promotion, explained Mac Riggan, marketing director at Chelan Fresh.
"We’re excited because last year New York and Michigan crops were way down, so that opened a lot of space for Washington. I think retailers saw improved performance in their apple category carrying more Washington product," he said.
"The data shows that there was improvement in the apple category in both sales and volume, so we’re hoping to capitalize on that going forward this year."
Although warm weather this week could create trouble, Riggan said quality and size out of the state have been optimal so far. In addition to high volume, this could mean a strong year for apple competition.
"This is the second largest crop we've ever had. On top of that you've got pretty good Michigan and New York crops. I'm hoping initially our prices will be reasonable so that retailers set reasonable retail prices and we can have consistent pricing through the whole year," he said.
For pricing, however, Washington has a bit of a geographical disadvantage compared to its competitors in Michigan and New York.
"There’s more competition from Michigan and New York. They’ll be pushing for that space and they’ve got a little bit of a competitive advantage because they’re closer to some of those big markets. They have a transportation cost advantage, so their product can be cheaper," he said.
With good weather and volume, Michigan growers are entering the season with high hopes as well, explained Diane Smith, executive director of Michigan Apples.
"We had weather cooperate unlike last year when we lost more than 90% of our crop. The weather has been perfect for us this year," she said.
"Our crop is increasing and we expect it to increase based on the number of plantings that have been going into the ground over the last few years. We have a lot of growers that are investing in replacing with high-density orchards and so we expect that this trend is going to continue to have these larger crops out of Michigan."
Much like in Washington, Michigan growers are upgrading their orchards with shorter, higher-density trees to bring customers premium varieties like Honeycrisps, Galas and Fujis.
This upward trend in volume has also meant a focus on marketing to increase sales access. In addition to healthy eating initiatives and a focus on local product, Michigan Apples has also taken a personalized approach to retailers.
"In Summer 2012 our board took the opportunity with what happened with the crop to do strategic planning. So we really looked at how we wanted to focus our energies over the next five years," Smith said.
"During that process we really wanted to take a close look at our retail efforts. We’ve increased those efforts by working directly with retailers to find specific programs that work well for them."
The organization will also be experimenting with social media by distributing tote bags that kids can draw on. Parents will then be encouraged to share the artwork on Facebook and Instagram.
Back in Washington, marketing has been a central focus as well. The state has taken a kid-centric focus with participation in programs like Fuel Up to Play 60 - an initiative that encourages children to eat right and go out to play for at least one hour.
"There are about 75,000 schools around the country participating. There’s a good chance that mom walks into the grocery store and her kid is going to see a bag of apples with the Fuel Up to Pay 60 and recognize it as one of the fuel up items," Riggan said.
Other campaigns geared toward kids will also include Disney princesses, cars and promotional deals with peanut butter spreads.
In California where warm weather has meant smaller fruit in general this year, marketers have also been able to place greater efforts on schools, said Steve Highley of the Crown Jewels Produce sales team.
"Quality wise it has been good. Color has been good. Everything has been good in that regard but it’s just small fruit. In one aspect it works because there is a lot of interest in small fruit for back-to-school and lunch programs," Highley said.
"But generally retailers like to feature 88s and 80s. That’s a peak size of theirs but they’re having to readjust their expectations to 100s and 113s, at least out of California."
An 80 apple is equivalent to 3.19 in or 81 mm in diameter while a 113 measures at 2.84 in or 72.1 mm.
In California, the apple harvest has already passed its midway point. In Washington and Michigan, however harvesters are just beginning to tackle the major volumes ahead.