U.S.: 'great acceptance' for exclusive varieties, says First Fruits Marketing
With First Fruits Marketing's apple season already underway, the company says it is expecting large volumes of its exclusive varieties and has a new sales plan in the form of ultra mesh packaging.
The Washington State-based marketer is owned by Ralph Broetje, whose collective apple orchards are the largest in the state at around 8,000 acres.
First Fruits Marketing CEO Keith Mathews told www.freshfruitportal.com he was expecting considerably larger volumes than last year for the exclusive Opal variety, which is now in its fourth year of commercial production.
"So far it's been fairly small, but this year we come into much more substantial volume - that being we expect about 300,000 cartons of conventional and 80,000 of organic, each carton with about 27 pounds each," he said.
"So that's more than double last year, and we will have substantial steps from here to well over a million of those cartons someday soon."
In previous years when there was a smaller crop, the supermarkets requested to receive the Opal variety around January, once major local production wasn't quite so high.
Now volumes are increasing, Frist Fruits supplies stores from the beginning of November in time for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Mathews said this year he was expecting a good quality Opal crop, in part thanks to good weather conditions, but as the trees were young and had a limited amount of leaves to protect the light-skinned apples from the sun, it was necessary to apply a special layer of protection to the skin.
"In very hot sunny areas like central Washington we use a spray - it's actually a mud that we spray on the outside of apples that then protects them from sunburn," he said.
"'Surround' was the old application name, and now somebody has come up with a more refined product. The granules are smaller so it coats better, so we've used that to very big success this year.
He added that as the company was dealing with so many varieties now, there was a lot of difference in how each tree developed, how much leaf surface it had, and how naturally protected the apples were.
"It's a learning process of how to maximum the quality of one versus the other," Mathews said.
"Particularly with Opal, where there's less leaf coverage and there are more apples that tend to be exposed, so that's why we try to keep away from that direct sun.
While First Fruits is the exclusive North American marketer of the Opal variety, Chile-based Polar Fruit International is also growing the cultivar in South America.
Mathews said although the Chilean crop was very young and not yet producing large volumes, when production grew there would likely be some form of business relationship between the two companies so both could enjoy a counterseasonal supply.
Although the Opal harvest will not begin untill late October, the season is in its final stages for the exclusive Braeburn-Royal Gala crossover called Sweetie, for which packing was due to end on Sept. 15.
"We've had about what we predicted on the crop - about 50,000 bushels," Matthews said.
"It's an exceptionally nice piece of fruit - it's got a nice blush, almost a medium-red cover on one side and the other tends to be light yellow. We're shipping very heavily now to retail and we've had great acceptance for it."
First Fruit's Jubilee Fuji variety - a softer apple which is unique due to its early season - is also in line with previous timing expectations and is expected to be in stores around early October.
Rejuvenating previous packing
As part of the company's marketing strategy for this season, a new ultra mesh packaging has been introduced to catch the consumers' attention.
Mathews said use of mesh packaging was widespread in the industry when he started in 1980, but the mesh was too firm and abrasive, often damaging the apples.
In the last few years, however, a softer mesh has been developed that some apple companies have already started using.
"We're offering that as a new way to package fruit for customers. In this case it's a mesh with an inch and a half plastic ribbon that runs all the way round the bag," Mathews said.
"It's got a very nice area for a graphic to catch the eye of the consumer and tell them what kind of apples are inside. The mesh side pouches give a lot of nice visibility to the bag, and we can offer that in two-pound sizes and anything bigger.
"The other thing is that it can stand up - it's triangular in shape so if you set it down it will stand up and show the graphic to shoppers."
Good demand, falling prices
In terms of the market situation this season, Matthews said he was very fortunate to work in a country that saw almost constantly high consumer demand for apples, but added increasing volumes were leading to lower profits.
"We should feel very good that consumers enjoy apples. We've got a lot of varieties, people have a choice, and they sell very well. With modern tools and storage that we have we're able to deliver a really crisp good apple all year round," he said.
"We have an exceptionally large crop this year, and what that will mean for growers here at home is there simply will not be as high an FOB - or price - as there has been in the last five years. There is just too much competition between us.
"So the returns to growers will pay the bills, but there won't be nearly as much profit as there has been recently - but that's kind of part of the cycle of agriculture, I guess."
Photo: First Fruits Marketing