My Observations from My One Acre Piece of Land
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.