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New apple varieties are popping up across Washington this year, and Stemilt Growers’ Rave is one of the earliest.

The Wenatchee operation started harvesting Rave the first week of August, according to Communications Manager Brianna Shales.

“This is the first year we are taking this apple to market” Shales told The Produce News. “It’s a Honeycrisp-MonArk cross, and the MonArk parentage causes it to color and ripen before any other apple in Washington State. We started harvesting it the first week of August, which is about two to three weeks ahead of other apples this year, although later than last year’s record early start.”

Shales said the Rave will be a small crop this year, with a month-long launch season, “But we are excited as it’s a fantastic tasting apple that gets to kick off apple season.” The next round was set to start around Aug. 20 with Gala and SweeTango, and Shales said early September would see the start of Honeycrisp, Fuji and others.

“Gala and SweeTango will arrive at stores just in time for back-to-school and the month of September,” she said. 

“We are also gearing up for a great year with our Piñata apple, which has now reached near year-round availability and is widely known as the ‘tropical apple’ at retail and among consumers.

Piñata’s season will kick off in November and we’ll see lots of promotions around it late winter and early spring,” she added.  

Shales said volume estimates are for 130 million cartons, down 1 percent from 2016.

“Volume appears to be good this year in Washington, with no major issues affecting any one variety,” she said. “Sizing will be a half to full size down on most varieties, which for apples like Honeycrisp and Fuji that tend to be a bit bigger means they will be in what we would call an average size profile. That also means that we will have more Lil Snappers kid-sized apples to promote, especially on varieties like Gala and Pink Lady, that already tend to size smaller.”

And Shales said Stemilt is “projecting significant increases in the Honeycrisp variety as well as organic apples, as new plantings have come into production and acreage has completed the three-year transition to organics.” The company’s overall apple volume is 30 percent organic, and Shales said growth in the category continues.

The company has a new distribution center now under construction, and Shales said it will feature an automated storage retrieval system, or ASRS, from SwissLog when it comes fully online next season.

“Besides that, we continue to enjoy the benefits of our state-of-the-art apple line, with Greefa’s optic sizing/sorting capability,” she said.  

Promotions with retail partners are planned for the season, and Shales said efforts will include Lil Snappers, Fresh Blenders juicing apples and the Apple Lover’s five-pound pouch bags.

“Packaging has been such a great way for us to market intent to a specific audience, and we want to continue to help retailers segment apples to their core shopper groups that include parents and Millennials,” she said.

“We work with retail dietitians to promote our healthy products at special events they have, whether they be school tours and kids education events, juicing demos or other activities,” she continued. “We also anticipate more Artisan Organics promotions with increased supplies of organic apples in modern flavors such as Honeycrisp, Fuji, Piñata and Pink Lady available.” 

With the recent acquisition of Pride Packing Co., Vanguard International Group, based in Issaquah, WA, is excited to be packing and marketing its apples this year through Vanguard Pride.

“For Vanguard, this is all part of our strategic plan to be a vertically integration organization, from farm to customer, to offer our global network of customer’s high-quality, food-safety assured, and great tasting fruit 52 weeks of the year,” said Byron Ihnen, vice president of sales for the company. “We know that apples are a strong driver for retailers and wholesalers both domestically and internationally.”

The latest buzz in the Washington apple industry is focused on the exciting and flavorful new varieties coming into production and Washington apple crop volumes, as Ihnen noted 120 to 130 million boxes is indeed the “new normal.”

“We need to be ready as an industry to market additional volumes in the years to come as additional new high-density plantings come into production,” he said. “Orchard redevelopment and new planting continue with more Red Delicious coming out of the ground, and more of the new varieties being planted. There is such a plethora of new varieties with various structures (club, Washington only, and global licensed programs) that it’s increasingly challenging for growers.”

Vanguard’s crops so far this year are looking great all the way around as the trees and the fruit seem to have weathered the summer heat very well.

“There are a few varieties that look to be a wee bit smaller in fruit size, but it’s still too early to tell for sure yet,” Ihnen said. “And for our export programs, slightly smaller sizes are actually an advantage.”

With the acquisition of Pride Packing Co., completed in May, Vanguard is moving forward with its vertically integrated strategy and have been mapping out both its domestic and international sales plans for a while, and have meaningful programs already in place going into the season.

“The Vanguard Pride Team is very excited about this coming season. We have a super team of great people, all with can-do, make-it-happen attitudes,” Ihnen said. “The apple growers and breeders of the world being the artists and scientists that they are will continue to bring us wonderful choices.”

One issue that the company continues to focus on and investigate for improvements is packaging of the apples. In fact, Ihnen called packaging “an interesting conundrum.”

“Consumers have demonstrated a desire to ‘grab and go,’ and that typically requires a package of some type. And there is the food safety and food security side of the equation to consider,” he said. “Consumers want to know more about their purchases — who grows it, where is it grown, how is it grown, and packaging can allow you to do that. A good package is your on-the-shelf sales person, that works 24/7/365.”

In addition to its strong Washington apple crop, Vanguard Pride just completed a successful cherry and stone fruit season.

Representing Jersey Fresh and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture at the 2017 New England Produce Council Expo Sept. 12-13, at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in Boston, will be Tom Beaver and Joe Atchison.

Beaver joined the Department as the director of the Division of Marketing and Development in December 2016, replacing Al Murray who retired after more than 30 years with the department. Prior to his new position, Beaver worked with the New Jersey Farm Bureau for nearly nine years.

Beaver now administers the Jersey Fresh program and other initiatives aimed at expanding market access for New Jersey farmers.

Atchison manages the strategic marketing activities that have made the Jersey Fresh program the outstanding success that it is today, including all television, radio, outdoor and print advertising.

“We’ll be on-hand to represent the more than 100 fresh market fruits and vegetables that are grown throughout New Jersey,” said Beaver. “And we will have a bounty of fresh-from-the-farm produce on display.”

Beaver noted that this year, the NJDA has added particular emphasis on highlighting its retailer partnerships, both through in-store events with grocery chains that actively promote the Jersey Fresh brand, and social media, where highlight unique point-of-purchase promotions and other creative strategies employed by retailers make Jersey Fresh a centerpiece of their marketing activities.

“Separately, we are also taking the lead in preparing growers to be compliant with the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule,” Beaver explained.

“We have long been involved in providing Third Party Audit and Good Agricultural Practices oversight for farmers across the state on a voluntary basis. We are making FSMA compliance a focal point of our efforts going forward in order that our growers can remain at the leading edge in satisfying buyer expectations.”

Also newsworthy this year was the decision by Target to begin promoting the Jersey Fresh brand at its stores in the New Jersey and Philadelphia metropolitan areas.

“The reception to this has been fantastic, and we are always thrilled to add new retail partners to the mix,” said Beaver.

He pointed out that Greater New England is a major market for New Jersey fruit and vegetable growers.

“In fact, it is our third largest market, trailing only New York and Philadelphia,” he said. “This is because buyers throughout the region know that when they buy produce from New Jersey farmers, they are getting products of outstanding quality picked at peak freshness.

“It is also thanks to the cache that the Jersey Fresh brand carries in the minds of consumers throughout the region,” Beaver continued. “With this in mind, it’s a no-brainer for us to come to Boston.”

Just days away from the start of its 2017 apple harvest, Rainier Fruit Co. in Yakima, WA, was expecting the crop to come in much the same as cherries and blueberries — with excellent quality and quantity.

According to Blake Belknap, Rainier Fruit’s director of domestic sales,  “We often say that our apple crop follows the cadence of the crops harvested before it, and our cherry and blueberry crops were excellent, providing us high hopes for apple season.”

Belknap noted in mid-August, “Industry rumors persist that overall bushels are down due to small sizing, but with good weather and harvest just getting ready to start, we expect some additional sizing yet to come, making it a good-size, promotable crop.    

First apples were to come in the week of Aug. 21 with organic and conventional Galas, and Belknap said the crop would “follow each successive week with additional varieties, including Honeycrisp by the week of Aug 28.” He said the company’s proprietary Lady Alice® variety will be harvested starting mid-to late September, with sales beginning Oct. 1. 

“We aren’t introducing any new varieties this year, but we will have volume increases on Lady Alice apples, which have continued to be a top performer, and we will have increases on premium varieties such as Jazz, Envy and Pacific Rose,” he said. “Each of these varieties has adequate volume for promotion, and category data points to clear opportunities to drive sales with promotions on these rising stars.”

Organics continue to gain in acreage each year, and Belknap said there are more certified Honeycrisp, Galas, Fujis and Granny Smiths this year.

“Washington State estimates that the total organic crop volume is up 20 percent across the state, continuing to reflect growing demand in this area. Rainier Fruit Co. offers a comprehensive organic program that includes all top performing varieties, as well as our Lady Alice variety. Our organic manifest spans nearly the entire year, with a gap of only a few weeks at the end of the season,” he said. 

 Promotions for the 2017 crop include continuation of the “Wholesome to the Core” message, and Belknap said it supports “healthy lifestyles that includes our sponsorship of the Boston Marathon and other active lifestyle events. As part of our Wholesome to the Core message, our people set the tone for our programs and messages, helping us to remain focused on sustainability, social responsibility and giving back. We plan to announce several additional initiatives in the coming months.” 

Belknap said technology continues to advance at Rainier Fruit Co., noting regular evaluations for “new additions that will improve our efficiencies and aid in our delivery of high-quality fruit.” In 2017, he said, “We have upgraded all of our size/defect sorters and now have full capability for internal quality sorting.”

In addition, Rainier has added packing capabilities for pouch bags on both organic and conventional lines.

“The new technology allows for the use of high-speed automation to pack pouch bags with less reliance on hand packing,” Belknap said. “It also allows us to meet demand for more bagged product while keeping costs in line by utilizing the right technology to maximize resources.”

Secaucus, NJ-based Maurice A. Auerbach, has always held service to its loyal customer bank as a priority, but it also welcomes the opportunity to expand its clientele.

“We have many customers in New England, and the New England Produce Council’s annual Produce and Floral Expo provides us with a great opportunity to meet with produce buyers and managers whom we would otherwise seldom have the opportunity to see,” said Bruce Klein, director of marketing. “It is also good to pick up new business, which the NEPC expo enables us to do.”

In addition to service, the company’s other leading principle has always been to offer top-quality produce.

The firm is a third-generation family-owned business that started distributing garlic during World War II. In the 1970s, it expanded its product line to include a variety of produce sourced from around the world. It specializes in garlic, shallots and other specialty items, including tropical and Asian produce, and it handles organic garlic, shallots and tofu.

Today, Maurice A. Auerbach is the largest garlic and specialty produce distributor in the Northeast.

The company packs its products under the AuerPak brand name.

Joining Klein at the company’s exhibition booth at the NEPC expo will be company executives Paul Auerbach and Josh Auerbach.

“We will be promoting virtually our entire line of product,” said Klein. “Our goal at the expo is to solidify our existing customer bank. The event provides us with the opportunity to speak to many of our customers on a one-on-one basis. We also get good feedback from the many produce managers from various chain stores who visit our booth.”