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Slower start gives way to strong apple momentum at Rainier Fruit

by Kathleen Thomas Gaspar | January 03, 2011
Noting a slow start to the 2010-11 apple shipping season, Rainier Fruit Marketing Director Suzanne Wolter said that the Selah, WA-based grower- shipper has hit stride and expects momentum to remain strong through spring.

Ms. Wolter said in late December that imported fruit was the key factor for the slowdown. "We had slower-than-usual start to the season in September and October. We attribute this in part due to the tremendous influx of fruit from Chile."

She continued, “It is surprising, given the 'local' trend, that retailers continue to promote imported product when U.S.-grown fruit becomes available.”

Ms. Wolter added that the term “local” has varying regional connotations and definitions, and she said, “I would argue that Washington apples are more ‘local’ and leave a much smaller carbon footprint than product grown on another continent.”

Rainier’s fruit picked up huge momentum in November, and Ms. Wolter said she expects movement to remain brisk through spring.

“Currently promotable volumes are good for Gala and Fuji,” she said. “And we are well positioned to meet the shifting consumer tastes to these varieties along with other relative newcomers, such as Pink Lady and Jazz. Conversely, Braeburn, Golden Delicious and Cameo struggle to keep pace.”

Ms. Wolter said that one apple in particular has gone off the charts in demand.

“The Honeycrisp phenomenon has continued this season, and demand is incredible. Even though our volume has increased substantially, we will finish up about the same time as last year.”

And the new Junami was scheduled to ship the week of Jan. 10 with ads breaking in various parts of the country the week of Jan. 17, Ms. Wolter said.

“Initial interest in the Junami variety has been excellent from retailers, who like the flavor and texture. Of course volume this year is very limited, only around 15,000 cases or so. We’re hopeful consumers will have the same response as the retail buyers who are willing to present it this season with us,” Ms. Wolter said.

She said that Rainier’s Lady Alice will be available in March, and she noted that retailers who offered customers the specialty variety last year “did so well that they are absorbing the increased volume we have this season.”

Ms. Wolter added, “Our thought is to extend the season for the retailers who’ve featured the apple the last few seasons so consumers have the opportunity to purchase it over the course of a month.”

Lady Alice’s density and juiciness set it apart from other varieties currently available, she said.

When asked if Rainier, a major grower-shipper of certified organic fruit, had seen any slowdown in demand, Ms. Wolter said the opposite is true for the company.

“It could be partially due to the fact that our available volume is up dramatically, 40 percent over last year, and so we’re pushing hard. However, that being said, we aren’t having a difficult time moving the fruit,” Ms. Wolter explained.

She said that because Rainier uses a pre-size operation, “We have the flexibility to run the fruit into a conventional box if we don’t have the organic demand. But we are selling more fruit as a total percentage of our available organic crop into an organic labeled package, which is good proof demand is up for us.”

Ms. Wolter also said that while Rainier representatives are asked often if the economy is affecting organic sales, “I can tell you that we continue to increase our organic production, and we are not having any trouble finding new outlets and increasing volume with existing partners.”

One very new wrinkle in Rainier’s marketing campaign this year is the implementation of quick response codes (also known as QR codes) on packaging. January marks the primary launch of the codes on Rainier packaging, and consumers who scan the codes with smartphones will be taken to specific Rainier web sites and pages.

Ms. Wolter said that once hits are received from scans, Rainier will be able to track where the code is scanned and how much time consumers spend on the site and pages.

“It will be very interesting to see how many times the Junami QR code is scanned,” she said.

Looking ahead to the 2011 season, Ms. Wolter said that Rainier anticipates challenges similar to those of 2010 regarding labor needs.

“In fact, it might be tougher since we most likely will not see any changes to immigration reform at this time. Our industry still does not see the unemployed seeking work in the agricultural industry, especially in the orchards and fields,” she said.

“The other big concern is what potential changes to the federal guest worker program will impact us this spring and how they will impact our overall participation and cost,” she said. “We will still need to rely on our H2A workforce for the 2011 growing season.”

She said that the H2A workers will establish a core “to help offset a weakened local workforce.” H2A workers are “willing to come out and perform the manual labor required in our orchard, vineyards and berries. The extension of unemployment benefits will reduce the incentive for people to come out and look for ‘our’ type of jobs.”

Lastly, Ms. Wolter addressed input costs, which she said “will go up in all agricultural production with the passage of the Food Safety Act.”

And she said, “We anticipate a spike in labor requirements as this bill is enacted, adding to [the] problem. The points of this program and what it will take to implement will be of great concern in the months ahead for many in the industry not already deeply involved with food safety programs.”

She said that Rainier Fruit is ahead of the curve in the issue of food safety, and, “We’re prepared to implement changes where necessary.”