Two-thirds of the nation’s apples come from Washington State at a value of nearly $2.4 billion.
The state’s industry is taking a unified approach to introduce a new variety they believe is out of this world.
Peter Tubbs has our Cover Story.
Two hundred apple growers and industry representatives have come to a field day in Prosser, Washington, to get a glimpse of an apple most have already committed to growing, processing and distributing. Its hybrid name is WA38, but the public will know it as Cosmic Crisp.
Ric Valicoff, Valkicoff Fruit Company: “That apple is extremely grower friendly. It sets itself up well in the tree, on either spindle, wall trellis, V trellis, what have you. It’s going to be way easier to deal with than the Honeycrisp, and a way better keeper.”
The rollout of Cosmic Crisp is a first for the apple industry, in that it mimics the introduction of many packaged foods. Apples are introduced to growers every year by university research farms, but this is the first time an apple has been taken through taste tests and focus groups before introduction. The audience data assured processors and wholesalers there is a market for the new apple.
Cristy Warnock, Proprietary Variety Management: “When a grower is deciding to grow a new variety, they can be only so comfortable with taking on a huge amount of risk with a new investment. The good thing about this situation is that the risk gets spread out through a whole industry. So more emphasis can be put into everyone collaborating and having their own orchards of this new variety, so that there will be a huge amount of volume, rather than a small amount trickling into the market over time.”
The apple breeding program at Washington State University developed WA38 over twenty years, winnowing down an initial group of 40 favorable varieties to two that had commercial potential: WA2 and WA38. A crunchy and juicy apple, WA38 was more grower friendly than Honeycrisp, which is prone to rot, mildew and sunburn in the field, and possesses a thin skin that leads to punctures and bruising during processing. Leaving half of a Honeycrisp crop in the orchard is a common occurrence. Cosmic Crisp avoids most of these issues, and brings new advantages to the industry. Outside the orchard, the apple stores for 12 months without special measures like a low-oxygen atmosphere, and is extremely slow to brown once cut.
Kate Evans, Washington State University: “So from a consumer perspective it's really a great eating apple, you know. Ultimately that is what the consumer wants. Most consumers key in on textural traits initially. Cosmic Crisp is crisp. Obviously, hence the name. It’s also extremely juicy. It’s one of those really nice apples that gives you that fantastic mouthfeel and the refreshing kind of juiciness that you get with an ultra crisp apple type.”
Dozens of varieties, some heirloom, some hybrid, are grown by individual orchards for the specialized apple market for audiences that prefer something unique. The potential of Cosmic Crisp encouraged the researchers at Washington State University to bring the entire supply chain to the table for the rollout of the new apple variety.
Cristy Warnock, Proprietary Variety Management: “We’ve created a marketing advisory board made up of all of the main sales and marketing groups. Once they got on board, they felt compelled to get behind this.”
Exclusivity helped bring growers on board. Cosmic Crisp will only be grown in Washington for 10 years to give growers time to recoup their investment before the variety goes global. The apple breeding program at Washington State will see a revenue stream to fund future research by charging $1 per tree start and 4.5 percent of the wholesale sales of Cosmic Crisp apples grown in the state of Washington.
Kate Evans, Washington State University: “Cosmic Crisp harvests in what is typically Red Delicious season. So many growers have been looking for something that would replace Red Delicious in terms of their harvest portfolio.”
It is expected that Red Delicious trees, a variety that sees 85% of the US crop exported internationally, will be the first to be replaced with Cosmic Crisp with other older varieties like Courtland and Braeburn to also lose acreage. The goal is to join Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp as the apples Americans most consume. Grower and packer interest is expected to make the rollout of Cosmic Crisp the fastest that the industry has ever seen. The last major apple variety to be introduced, Pink Lady, required 15 years to reach 1 million trees in the ground. Cosmic Crisp is expected to double that number in only two years. Interest in Cosmic Crisp has been so strong that a form of lottery was held to parcel out the initial tree starts. Few orchards got as many as they wanted, but most got enough for a dedicated section of their orchard. Roughly 700,000 trees will be grafted in 2017, with another 1.3 million in 2018, making it the largest apple tree introduction ever. Cosmic Crisp apples should begin to appear in West Coast markets in 2019, and expand nationally in 2020.
Ric Valicoff, Valicoff Fruit Company: “If you want to talk about the old Red Delicious and where that went, it’s sellability through the state of Washington back 30 years ago, this is the new Red Delicious but 10 times better.”
Growing the better apple won’t come cheap. Converting an orchard to a new variety like Cosmic Crisp can cost $35,000 per acre. Using high density trellis systems, less than 1500 acres statewide will be needed to start 2 million trees, but at a cost to growers of over $40 million dollars.
Time will tell if consumers will find room for this new apple in their shopping carts.
For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs.
An earlier version of this story contained two errors: The apple variety was listed as WA48, and has been corrected to WA38. Ms. Warnock's name was corrected to Cristy Warnock.