Is it just me or is there a feeling of uncertainty about this crop? I think many growers are coming to the reality that too much of their acreage is no longer in peak demand. The shelves are seeing new names that have now so slowly replaced long standing favorites. While the apple shelf space is still impressive it cannot hold all varieties.
A few years ago, the Eastern crop had a record low crop due to poor weather. The apple shelves did not go bear. Fruit from outside the traditional reach found its way to our markets to fill this gap. Life has never been the same. New supple ties were made and new varieties became available to our consumers. We did not lose our apple consumer they simply had a new list to select from.
We need to accept that our consumer is not the consumer of our parents. That consumer was happy
to drive a Ford or Chevy. Today’s consumer wants to select from all the types of cars of the world. Our apple consumer is no different. Our challenge is to accept this reality and wisely move forward. To hold onto older varieties is similar to trying to sell yesterday’s newspaper.
So how do we meet this shift? It may sound like a broken record, but we must continue to invest in research. We need to invest in production and marketing research. We may know how to design the modern orchard but what good is it if we have the wrong variety. I believe we need to make the effort to partner with our State and Federal policy makers to invest in much needed research.
We all know the struggles we are currently having with shifts in public policy on farm labor. We cannot allow this debate to dampen our efforts to increase funding for research. If our labor is to cost us more we certainly need to be harvesting the most desirable crop.
I am confident that in many ways this year will see a huge shift in our orchards. We cannot take the attitude that we will grow what we want despite the consumer shift. We truly do farm today from the shopping cart back to the farm. Embrace change but first make every effort to research that change.
Everyone who is managing a commercial apple orchard in New York State is concerned with whether they will have enough labor to harvest the new crop. I operated my family farm for over 30 years. Too often I was guilty of the concepts I will challenge you with. I know that what I am suggesting is not easy, but it may be the difference between you just surviving and seeing a profit.
To begin let me pose a question to you. Are you managing orchards that are productive but not profitable? Have the markets shifted away from these blocks? Will these blocks struggle to break even? If this is the case than you need to ask yourself why you are continuing to operate these blocks. Bushels alone do not guarantee profit. If those bushels have to be sold at a discount to move them are they doing you any good? Have newer strains found shelf space in their place? Am I having to house extra men to harvest these apples? Am I mowing, fertilizing, spraying and pruning these blocks often times more in an effort to meet color requirements? More than 100 apple varieties are grown commercially in the United States. Fifteen of those varieties represent 90% of the production.
Most of agriculture’s history enjoyed the fact that if you were able to grow a crop you could find a use for it. Distribution systems were such that you could find a “profitable” utilization for your efforts. In essence, if you grew it there would be a consumer waiting for it. Those days are gone here and globally. Today we need to farm from the shopping cart to our farm gate. They decide if they want your product. They have more choices than demand for each product. They are no longer in a consumer position to accept marginal quality.
Recently it was announced that the Gala variety has replaced the Red Delicious (dates back to 1870) as the most popular variety. Long standing varieties such as the Macintosh, that was discovered in 1811, and the Cortland, that was discovered around 1900, are understandably under great consumer challenge. Newer varieties have arrived. Consumers have diversity today in the market place. As they review and cast their vote at the checkout counters we need to take notice. They are sending us clear messages as to what they prefer. If we ignore this then we should not be surprised when our sales for older varieties decline.
I am not suggesting that any one variety is no longer profitable. I am asking each of you to evaluate your particular marketing program and react to those trends. At one time in my farm history I grew profitably over 100 acres of pears. The markets I was associated with made this a profitable venture. In the last years I was managing my farm it all changed. I was investing in removal of pears in favor of other newer apple varieties. What was once a sound program had shifted due to consumer buying trends. As I alluded to earlier, I was guilty of holding on too long as well.
In conclusion, before you expand your housing take a good look at what you are needing to harvest. If you are gearing up to harvest crops that are productive but not profitable you need to step back. We all need to shift to meet consumer demands. The entire globe is eating better. Consumers everywhere have a higher income that allows them to select what they will eat. Be certain you are striving to match those trends.
Unless your operation is in Maine or south of the Mason Dixon line we all pretty much sound alike. A second thing we all have in common is we are each in the midst of a total rebuild. What you grew two years ago, variety wise, may be less or more valuable today. In most cases the less valuable category seems to be growing. Your consumers have less and less awareness of where or how the apples they consume got to their respective store shelf. Local does still have its niche for some varieties but nationally it is being driven by four to five recognized varieties. Consumers are looking for honey crisp, gala, fuji, red delicious and their old personal favorite from years of shopping locally.
The per capita consumption is stable. Regardless of the introductions of newer varieties the shopper is still consuming about the same volume. This tells me that each year as new varieties emerge we will see it displace a once popular variety. The real trick is to predict which variety will be accepted and which variety will be dropped. To make an inaccurate selection can be fatal. Similarly, to hold onto a variety expecting it to remain in high demand once the consumer has moved on is equally fatal. Orchards today are much more capable of being worked to a different variety than those of the traditional style planting. While this can be done it takes time and delays necessary cash flows.
I have stated that there seems to be a centering of a top five variety list by the produce buyers. This list
may alter year to year. Each orchard is limited by its location. Apples grown in the southern portion of Virginia will not be able to compete with varieties grown further north. Similarly, just because the buyers want a fuji it does not mean you can produce it if your growing season is too short. We need to match our selections to our location.
The next area of commonality is the human resource factors. Regardless of where you grow apples you will be looking for some supply of guest workers. The peeked short term need for labor will always make this a reality. Canadian growers are equally dependent on sourcing guest workers. If you wish to grow apples on a commercial level you need to be proficient in sourcing guest workers and then providing good temporary housing. The truth is, there are presently more jobs than workers. If you wish to insure a supply of good help you will need to invest as much effort in this as in growing that perfect apple. Housing seems to be the most limiting factor in today’s market. If you do not have enough labor you will be forced to, at times, abandon some blocks to pick your higher valued crops on time.
Finally, your ability to gather good information will determine your ability to survive. You will never reach a level where you have all the facts. We need to collectively work to support research both for horticulture and market trends. We need more than ever the ability to influence both our respective State and Federal public policy makers. They need to be kept in touch with all of the changing pressures we are facing. No matter if your farm is in Washington or New York or somewhere in between you need to be supporting efforts to influence sound applied research. Knowledge is power, and it never was truer than today on your farms.
Apples are a global product. They are grown all over the globe. They are being consumed today in more places than ever before. As the saying goes, if your choice is to be an apple farmer you need to decide how you best fit into this industry. We will be facing perhaps the largest domestic crop in decades. Many will have a strong year and for some who are unable to cope with the need to change this will be a very difficult year. We are all a product of a long series of choices. Be certain you are doing all you can to arm yourself with the most current information so you may make those choices.
In closing, I was talking to a grower recently. He offered that he intended to cut back his operation. I asked him if he was down-scaling? He said no simply making wiser choices. He said there were areas that he felt the best he could do moving forward was break even. He intended to remove those acres and concentrate on the acres he saw profit potential. Often times less is not stepping back but moving ahead.