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Stars aligned for a nice apple crop at Fowler Farms

“The stars seem to have aligned and things came together to result in what we feel should be the nicest apple crop in a while,” Lee Peters, vice president of sales and marketing for Fowler Farms in Wolcott, NY, told The Produce News. “We start harvesting Paul Red the week of August 15, and the following [week] we start harvesting Ginger Gold, followed a week later with the Zestar.”

Mr. Peters said that the public is responding to the many new varieties, and they’re not disappointed with the outstanding options. The company now grows 24 varieties, “A flavor for every taste preference,” he noted.

The McIntosh, Gala and Empire varieties continue to be top performers for Fowler Farms. In recent years, the McIntosh and Empire have been leaders, but Mr. Peters said that the volumes of all three varieties should be about equal this year.

“The Honey Crisp and the SweeTango are also on the rise, and they are making headway in developing a strong following,” he added. “We have increased production of both varieties again this year. When you have two winners like these — when they’re available they tend to take some of the attraction away from other varieties,” he said. “Consumers respond with excitement when they’re asked to try something new, and when they’re pleased with the flavor, they get even more excited.”

The SweeTango is a managed variety. Fowler Farms has exclusive distribution rights in the Eastern Time Zone. Volumes are not yet high enough to store the variety because this is only the third season the company is marketing the apple. The idea behind managed varieties is to prevent supply from exceeding demand.

“We anticipate this apple being a home run,” said Mr. Peters. “The not-to-be-missed profile is exciting. It’s not the first bite that gets you, it’s the second bite when the flavor bursts in your mouth and gets the taste buds dancing. The flavor exceeds even the wildest expectations.”

The Honey Crisp, he added, is another apple variety that buyers and merchandisers should not ignore. Fowler Farms increased its volumes again this year, but the demand has also increased. Like other growers of the apple, he noted that the perfect solution for storage has not been determined. But because it is typically sold out by January each year, storage challenges are not yet an issue.

Fowler Farms is also well known for its apple cider. This year, demand for Honey Crisp cider is expected to be higher. The company also produces a SweeTango cider. Both are 100 percent variety juices with no blends added.

“The locally grown movement is huge and getting even bigger,” said Mr. Peters. “It is truly an amazing trend. With the economy being what it is, and fuel costs so high, many buyers and merchandisers look at it as a gift from God.

“Fowler Farms is involved with the ‘Pride of New York’ local program, but we sell to local major chains who in turn promote it to consumers. And consumers are looking for it everywhere they shop today.”

Labor problems continue to haunt the apple industry, just as they do producers of all fresh produce. Mr. Peters said that the problem lies within the government.

“The labor program has been in place for decades, but the government has not kept up with the times to make it efficient and workable,” he said. “The red tape, paperwork and liabilities are outrageous, but because local people don’t want to do this type of labor, we have to hire immigrants and contend with the challenging administrative issues. It’s also highly costly. The government has created a double-edged sword; they make it hard to bring people in from other countries to work, yet there is not incentive to get domestic people interested in doing it.”

Fowler Farms makes continual updates and improvements to its facility. It is now using new technology that makes it possible to look inside each apple without cutting them open. “In simple terms, it’s a light that shines through the apple to detect every flaw,” said Mr. Peters. “On our packing side, we make continual improvements,” he added. “We have a new labeling machine that prints on demand. Our new baggers print on the bag, including traceback information.”

The company is also installing a robotic system for palletizing. “These improvements are all necessary in business today,” said Mr. Peters. “They make everyone’s job easier and make us a more efficient company.”