"Geometric growth" ahead for Opal apples
Czech breeder Dr. Jaroslav Tupý, who developed the highly successful Opal apple, passed away recently but his legacy lives on in the fruit itself. As part of a two-part series on the trademarked variety, over today and tomorrow we will be taking a closer look at how its production is developing in the Americas, Europe and South Africa.
Opal apples have figuratively glittered in sensory testing for a long time in the U.S., but only now is supply starting to take off in a big way.
Chuck Zeutenhorst of trader First Fruits Marketing of Washington tells www.freshfruitportal.com there is a "terrific amount" of Opals - known scientifically as UEB 32642 - planted by the company's partner Broetje Orchards in its blocks along the Snake River.
This year the company had sold all of its product by early May, but Zeutenhorst highlights there will be significant volumes coming on-stream over the coming years and the fruit's strong storing ability also bodes well for longer season windows.
"It’s the difference between arithmetic and geometric growth. Apple trees go in a pattern like 1, 2, 4, 16, and then of course they get to their saturation point, but when they begin to produce it comes on very quickly," he says.
"You can make very significant changes in a year. I’m expecting us to be near or at a million boxes for the 2017 crop," he says, mentioning in 2016 volume was around the 600,000-box mark.
"At this point of time we’re trying to do our marketing piece to match our production, but it’s in most of the main retail components nationwide and it’s doing very well – we’re very excited about it," he says, adding the apple is also stocked by the top four retailers in Canada as well.
But for the Opal to be marketable, growers have to grow it in a very specific way to meet consumer demands and to warrant a premium price.
"We pick this apple in October, so sometimes it can coincide with Red Delicious but usually it’s a little later than that," he says.
"Obviously the key to this apple is the yellow color that comes for us towards the end – if the apple is green it does not eat the same, and so that’s one reason why we have it in a slightly earlier district because it does take on the color that we like at that time.
"We’ll color pick it and we generally two- and three-pick this apple on color, so it can be done over a 2.5 week period."
Broetje is also playing into another important consumer trend, with around 15% of its Opal production certified as organic. However, the biggest challenge for growers and traders is to make a mark at a time when such a plethora of new apple cultivars are available on supermarket shelves.
"There’s been this incredible proliferation of all these new varieties, so we have data to back up that it’s either the top variety or the top two or three.
"The uniqueness of this variety obviously is the way it eats and the fact it’s very hard, and people love that aspect because one of the biggest complaints universally on apples is when they get a soft one.
"The other trait on it that’s so unique is the color because it is a butter yellow color – most of the new varieties are just a new bi-colored variety."
Zeutenhorst claims even though apple consumption has increased through the sliced category and juicing, fresh consumption has been "very stagnant" domestically.
"Maybe we should be excited with all the opportunities for the produce category, but consumption per capita has remained very stagnant over the last 15-20 years; in fact there’s been a bit of a decline.
"One of the things we’re trying to do industry-wide is not take away from things we’re already doing. The whole point is to allow people to love their Fuji, Gala or whatever they like - Pink Lady and Honeycrisp for example - and supplement that with a new variety like the Opal.
"In my mind, the only way we can really fix that is get back to some national advertising through our industry, and at this point of time our apple commission does not operate domestically; it's only operating internationally. I’d like to see us get back to that. I hope we can."
Zeutenhorst also ponders whether some retailers may choose to use Opals instead of Golden Delicious.
"It's because people associate with the Golden Delicious, which they don’t like anymore because they can get such a varied eating experience as far as sugars and condition," he says.
"I actually believe that at some point of time it’s going to be a 12-month apple for us."
Slow start for commercial production in Chile
A key component for a 12-month supply would be sourcing from the Southern Hemisphere, where license manager Varieties International has identified Chile as the best prospect for exporting to the North American market, although projects are also underway in New Zealand and South Africa.
"At this point in time we have some interested parties [in Chile] who are doing commercial trials," says Varieties International co-owner Dave Weil.
"The orchards are young, so the results are that the juvenile fruit don’t pack well. This is typical of all new varieties but particularly something like Honeycrisp or Opal.
"So they’re basically wanting to evaluate the apple over more time to make sure it gets past the juvenility phase which takes three years, sometimes four, to settle down and have good fruit."
He says the largest parcel in Chile is about 20 acres and is in two phases, with half the parcel in first leaf and the other half in second leaf.
"We haven’t worked with anyone else in South America because we feel Chile is the most suited for Opal and is probably in our trials the most promising for fruit quality and production," he says.
"The fruit probably has the best cell structure and eating quality of any fruit we’ve trialed globally.
"It depends on your perspective – if you’re in the United States or Europe and you’re seeing the trends in the markets, there’s been a trend from cosmetics being the most important thing to flavor being the most important thing."
He highlights the success of Honeycrisp apples as a good example of this taste-over-appearance focus, and Opals have followed a similar trend.
"The feedback from the consumers is mostly sensory - it has nothing to do with cosmetics. Typically Honeycrisp will pack out in the beginning 50% or less of the fruit in the box – it’s a very difficult apple to grow, very expensive to grow, but the demand from consumers has been so amazing that it’s been heavily planted in the U.S.
"If you’re in Chile you see the market more in cosmetics because you haven’t lived the new markets – in Chile their number one market is Gala. It's sold in volume, a commodity apple sold on cosmetics.
"That’s their mindset, that’s why it’s a bigger hill to climb in Chile than it is in the U.S. in terms of what you want to do and what you would accept. We’re within a year or two of moving that forward."
He says if Chile is able to make that step, the industry could pave the way in some overseas markets like Asia.
"They are moving rapidly to becoming leaders, it’s just not their history. They've always been a fill-in, counterseasonal country.
"There are forward-thinking people who will bring the apple forward, assuming Opal does what I think it will do, and that is it will follow the same cycle of Honeycrisp. Everything we’ve done up until this point tells us that’s correct.
And why is that?
"In all our sensory evaluations for the last 12 years, Opal has done incredibly well," he says.
"We compare it to other apples and Opal hits a nice flavor profile – it’s on the sweet side, it has enough acid to be balanced, the cell structure is amazing, it generally never goes soft so it has fairly good texture, and it’s juicy.
"We're getting comments like 'that’s the best apple I’ve eaten in my life'. That’s a world of difference, that's a memorable experience."
A Chilean agronomist's perspective
According to Gabriel Aylwin, who works in Chile as a field consultant for Frusan with a strong focus on new variety testing, any future for Opal in the country will depend heavily on the selection of geography and micro-climates.
In essence, he believes the fruit grown in the southern area of Traiguen meets European standards but does not have the physical qualities expected from U.S. buyers.
In contrast he sees good opportunities to meet U.S. specs a bit further north in the O'Higgins and Biobio region, most likely west of the Ruta 5 highway towards the coast in protected areas like Peumo and San Vicente.
"Frusan only made testing agreements for the variety four years ago which were planted in the area of Traiguen, and we’ve had fruit in the third season. We've been learning a lot of lessons from the point of view of agronomy, production, the fruit itself and post-harvest," Aylwin says.
"Traiguen is in the ninth (Araucanía) region, more or less 80km from Angol in a southeasterly direction. It’s an appropriate environment for growing apples in a cool area, especially for Honeycrips.
"In this zone there is a very good product where the Opal develops an orange blush; that’s normal in these temperatures - it's a product that's grown in conditions more like in Europe, where this orange blush is a good attribute that is positively valued in Golden Delicious, the variety most similar to Opal."
He says the organoleptic qualities are good, "with a lot of sugar and a tartness that is perhaps higher than the fruit grown in the central zone", with well-sized fruit grown harvested in late March, early April.
He adds sugar levels can reach up to 15° Brix.
"It's a tree that grows well in these conditions but there are some problems with sunburn. . Also there is a little bit of russeting as a negative cosmetic characteristic of the fruit.
"But a positive attribute the variety has in this cold zone is its tolerance to Venturia (apple scab). It works well, with no infections in this area.
"However, Traiguen is not a good zone for producing for the American standard which wants a yellow, gold apple, and doesn’t appreciate the pigmentation. The fruit from Traiguen fits very well with the standards of England, Germany and southern Europe."
This last point presents a key challenge for Opal production in Chile, because in Aylwin's view the U.S. apple market is more attractive than Europe.
"It's probable that the issue will be to resolve or clear up some aspects, the commercial issues.
"My view is more agronomic, but I’m enthusiastic about the variety."