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Published October 15, 2010, 11:06 AM

Apple growers marketing tasty new varieties

YAKIMA, Wash. — The names can be quirky, sublime or romantic. SweeTango, Pinata, Jazz, Aurora, Honeycrisp, Opal, Sweetie, Pacific Rose and Ambrosia.

By: David Lester, Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. — The names can be quirky, sublime or romantic.

SweeTango, Pinata, Jazz, Aurora, Honeycrisp, Opal, Sweetie, Pacific Rose and Ambrosia.

They’re among the most recent apple varieties vying for the attention of consumers and retailers with the hope of bringing growers more money.

Ever since the introduction to Washington state of Granny Smith in the 1960s, followed more recently by Fuji, Gala, Braeburn, Jonagold and others to expand the apple market beyond Red and Golden Delicious, the search has been on for new apples that emphasize taste.

“We have to stay current and we have to be consumer-driven,” said Jim Hazen, business manager for Prescott, Wash., based Broetje Orchards, which is handling Sweetie and Opal.

Along with the new apples come new marketing strategies.

Establishing trademarked names and licensing agreements for the new varieties can limit production and target distribution, which can mean higher prices and better quality control. In theory, the more exclusive the availability, the greater the cachet and the higher the price. Some newer varieties, for example, are selling at more than twice the price of the old standards, such as Red Delicious.

The trend, which began several years ago when the Pink Lady variety was trademarked, represents a significant change in the industry.

The days of so-called new open varieties — such as Red and Golden Delicious, which could be purchased and grown by orchardists without restriction — now appear to be numbered.

The Honeycrisp, which was trademarked following its development by the University of Minnesota breeding program, shows what a new variety can mean. Since its patent expired two years ago, more acres of Honeycrisp have been planted and the variety’s popularity and return to growers are touted as a success story.

This marketing season, average price for a 40-pound box of Honeycrisp exceeds $47. By comparison, Red Delicious, the industry mainstay for years, is averaging less than $18 per box in limited shipments of fruit from the 2010 crop.

While the price is high, the Honeycrisp variety is difficult to grow and is more susceptible to problems that limit how many are ultimately shipped to market.

Other new varieties are in such limited quantities and are being marketed by individual shippers that price information is not available.

Another University of Minnesota apple variety, SweeTango, is being handled as a managed variety, meaning production is limited. The name is trademarked and the university has licensed the variety to a select group of growers, including some in Washington state.

But some disgruntled Minnesota growers, not included in the licensing deal, are suing.

Broetje Orchards and its marketing arm, FirstFruits Marketing, are providing the Sweetie variety exclusively to Top Food & Drug and Haggan Food and Pharmacy in Washington and Oregon.

The apples, which went on sale late last month, are promoted as having a beautiful red color accented by golden cheeks. An initial retail price was $1.99 per pound.

Other warehouse and marketing firms have their own varieties. One, Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee, trademarked the name Pinata and has exclusive rights to grow and market the variety in the United States.

The variety was developed in Germany and released throughout Europe in 1986, according to information from Stemilt. Less than 100,000 boxes of Pinata made their way to market through June.

“It becomes a method for all of us to have a special variety to capture a premium that has controlled amounts of volume so it isn’t overplanted and supports a higher dollar figure,” said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt.

Certainly, that is what retailers are looking for. Desmond O’Rourke, a retired Washington State University agricultural economist who now operates Belrose Inc., which analyzes the world apple market, said retailers want to be the exclusive provider to set them apart from their competitors.

“Retailers are looking for new varieties. In this latest phase, retailers are looking for an apple that is special to them,” he said.

Another common trait among these new varieties is they originated someplace else.

But that, too, is changing.

Washington state has its own new variety. Technically, the variety, now known only as WA 2, was developed by Washington State University breeder Bruce Barritt in conjunction with the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Commission.

WA 2, a blush red apple, is undergoing evaluation in commercial orchard settings and is expected to be released in January. Another variety, WA 5, also is in the pipeline.

Kate Evans, who succeeded Barritt when he retired, said the breeding program is an effort to develop an apple suited to the Washington climate.

“There’s always an interest in new varieties. Growers within the state have been getting varieties in from other places. There is an interest in what they can produce if they are using varieties selected within their own environment.”

Jim McFerson, manager of the research commission, said WA 2 apples picked from four orchards located in Prosser, Mattawa, Quincy and Brewster, are now being evaluated in storage.

The research commission is contributing $130,000 a year in grower assessment dollars to support breeding research.

Once released, Washington growers who pay assessments to the commission will be able to buy the trees that produce the variety.

WA 2 still needs a name and its reception in the market will be the true test. That’s the gamble all the new varieties are facing in this high-stakes game that will see some succeed and some fall away.

“There’s a lot of good news coming for the apple industry in general. Most of it is built around having a better eating experience and creating sustainability for growers,” Stemilt’s Pepperl said. “There’s a lot of blue sky, but there will be some mistakes.”