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Fowler Farms is the Northeast apple expert

When it comes to apples, variety is truly the spice of life at Fowler Farms.

That is because the Wolcott, NY-based grower produces a whopping 24 varieties of apples, offering retailers and consumers an apple for every need, want and occasion.

“Jersey Mac is the first one that we start with to get us out of the gate, and the last variety that we harvest is the Raeburn,” Austin Fowler, co-owner of Fowler Farms told The Produce News. McIntosh, Empire, Red Delicious and Gala are also strong varieties, with others quickly gaining in popularity.

cap-4-altWolcott, NY-based Fowler Farms produces a whopping 24 varieties of apples, offering retailers and consumers an apple for every need, want and occasion.“We’re the largest Honeycrisp grower in the Northeast by far, and we have the eastern sales lead on the SweeTango. That has been really successful and consumers continue to ask for it,” Fowler said, adding that Snapdragon is another newer variety picking up steam.

“Snapdragon has really gotten a lot of attention in our market. Nielsen data is showing that in the Southeast it has just exploded. We introduced it about three years ago down there and it has just doubled and doubled every year,” Fowler said.

Plus, Fowler Farms is continuously on the search for the next big apple hit.

“We literally have dozens of varieties under test agreements with nurseries, and we work closely with Cornell University in Geneva, NY,” Fowler said. “We are looking for something that has to be exceptional. It can’t just be another Honeycrisp or Gala. It has to have attributes that set it apart. In most opinions, there are too many new varieties that are ‘exceptional’ in the marketplace, and that is just confusing to the consumer.”

And that may mean going back to the future, in terms of heirloom apple varieties that were popular centuries ago.

“The hard cider market is calling for that because they use some of the high acid varieties,” Fowler said. “I think heirloom will continue to be a niche, and certain retailers who are really good at marketing will utilize it. If the consumer is asking for heirloom apples they will give it to them, build that relationship and continue to be a leader in the market.”

Fowler Farms’ apple roots run deep, and it grows some of those heirloom varieties. The company was founded in 1858 and today farms some 2,500 acres in Wayne County, NY, along the shore of Lake Ontario.

According to Fowler, the narrow band of land along the lakeshore presents the perfect microclimate for growing apples, shielding the area from the 100-degree-plus heat that can be found a few miles inland in Rochester and Syracuse. “That is why a lot of other apple regions are susceptible to big crops, small crops and weather damage. Fortunately, the lake really protects us with a 10-degree buffer up to seven or eight miles inland, where most of our farms are located. In the spring it keeps us cold and way behind. When everybody else is having lilac festivals we’re looking at sticks in the orchards. But in the fall it keeps us warm, so we have a little bit longer season in which to harvest,” Fowler explained.

He expects this year’s harvest to be top-notch.

“Initially we were a little bit nervous comparing to last year, but the weather changed for the better and it has been very warm with very favorable conditions for growing,” Fowler said. “We think we are going to be right about where we were last year. Things look really well. The fruit has thinned out nice and it is looking beautiful.”

Although it distributes nationwide, Fowler Farms focuses on the East Coast, with a large percentage of the country’s population within 300 miles of its facilities.

“One of the big things that sets us apart is that we are a fully integrated operation,” Fowler said. “We have our own nurseries, grow our own trees, have our own orchards and build a lot of our equipment to manage those orchards. We store our own fruit, pack it in our packing house and sell it. We are responsible throughout the whole supply chain. That makes us a little different because in the East most fruit is sold through a broker that works with packing houses or growers.”

Its apples are marketed under the Fowler Farms label. Fowler Farms also produces ancillary products, including traditional blended apple cider, available year-round, as well as 100-percent Honeycrisp and 100-percent SweeTango ciders. “Being the largest grower of Honeycrisp, not all apples are beautiful, so we try and make use of all of them. Honeycrisp cider has been a hit and has had double-digit sales growth pretty much since its inception,” Fowler said.

An advantage of cider is that it creates impulse sales — coupled with a high dollar ring. “We work with retailers and if they put our cider on ad, like our Honeycrisp, we’ll create a Honeycrisp festival and maybe do a BOGO on a bag and a discount on the cider — and it really works well. Chances are consumers are not going to pick up three or four different bags of apples, but they will pick up a bag of apples and cider to go with it,” Fowler explained.