The 2011 Washington apple season is shaping up as one of contrasts. Later harvests this year, coupled with less carry-over from 2010 and high demand, has set the stage for a gap in supplies, according to Rainier Fruit Co. Marketing Director Suzanne Wolter.
But Ms. Wolter also said that fruit quality, as seen with the cherry crop earlier in the summer, looks to be exceptional.
On Aug. 26 Ms. Wolter said, “We are running 10 to 14 days later than what we consider normal and seven to 10 days behind last year. Fruit maturity is late, and it’s sizing one to two sizes smaller, depending on the variety and the region.”
Rainier had started packing Gingergolds that week, and Galas would also start in late August, she said.
“Demand has been so high that we are size- and maturity-picking,” she continued. “We go into the orchards and figure out what’s ready. It is very labor-intensive, and we need experienced pickers. But we also really need the fruit.”
The late apple crop, again similar to the situation with cherries, resulted in a dry pipeline, and Ms. Wolter said, “[The shipping season] is starting slowly. It takes two to three weeks to fill the pipeline, and we’re not carrying over the fruit from last year. We will gap for the first time on Red Delicious. For us to run out is consequential for everyone.”
Not only is the new apple season starting down some 5 million boxes of storage apples, but Ms. Wolter said imports are also down due to the decline of the U.S. dollar.
“And retailers are citing especially good apple demand for this time of year,” she said.
But there are positives that go with the situation. “With all crops being late, stone fruit is still at retail,” Ms. Wolter said, noting that produce department shelves present consumers with options.
Initial big season apple ads will likely start in early to mid-October, and Ms. Wolter said Rainier Fruit Co. will continue its strategy of working one-on-one with retailers in category management.
Looking at specific varieties, Ms. Wolter said that Rainier is seeing upticks in volume on the Lady Alice proprietary apple and the Honeycrisp as well.
“With Lady Alice, our volume is up almost 70 percent this year. We will ship approximately 100,000 cartons, starting in early February and going with an eight- to 10-week program. Organic Lady Alice is also up slightly,” she said.
“In Honeycrisp, our volume is up 20 percent over 2010, and we are the largest Honeycrisp grower in North America now. We put a tremendous amount of effort into determining which sites produce the best quality of this variety, and we are the only supplier who has figured out how to store Honeycrisp. Our 2011 volume will go into April or early May. And our organic Honeycrisp is also up 17 percent this year,” Ms. Wolter said.
The new Junami will become available in limited volume in January and will ship for just two to three weeks. Ms. Wolter said organic Junamis will be in commercial volume within the next four years.
“Overall, our organic volume is up again, primarily in apples,” she said.
Facility upgrades at Rainier Fruit Co. include a $2 million commit-to-pack line at the Prosser, WA, facility for fruit that has not been pre-sized. Honeycrisp and Lady Alice are commit-to-pack, Ms. Wolter said. And a new near-nfrared detector sorting system is also being used.
Rainier has also introduced QR, or quick-response, codes on its bags and cartons along with its point-of-sale material. The codes on p-o-s for new varieties such as Lady Alice and Junami received the most hits, Ms. Wolter said.