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Stemilt season jump-started by Rave, efficiency amped up by robotics

A slightly smaller crop with better fruit sizing in Washington bodes well for growers and retailers alike, and Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee jumped into the new season with its early Rave and stands ready with newer varietals and an uptick in organics for the season.stemiltsweetango

According to Stemilt Communications Manager Brianna Shales, 2018 looks promising on all fronts, and the Aug. 6 Rave start was a highlight.

“Believe it or not, Stemilt starts apple season in late July with harvest of MN55 cultivar apples, which are known as Rave. This unique Honeycrisp-MonArk cross gives us a three-week jump-start on apple season with a variety that is incredible to eat. It’s only our second season with this apple, and so demand still exceeds supply, but it’s fun for us to be at the opening gate of the season.”

And as newer apples roll out, so does newer technology at Stemilt.

“Stemilt recently opened a state-of-the-art distribution center that automatically — yes, we have robots! — stores and retrieves packed pallets of our fruits, including apples, and stages them for shipping. This is an incredible technology that is increasing our ability to fulfill orders and unlike anything else in the apple industry,” Shales said.

Shales added that overall, the state’s apple crop will be down from 2017, “about 2 percent less according to the Aug. 1 crop outlook.” However, she said, there is an increase in “organic apple volume, an increase in hot varietals like Honeycrisp and better fruit sizing.” While Reds, Golds and Grannies are down as an industry, “Honeycrisp and other varietals on the rise.”

The outlook is good not only for growers but also retailers, particularly in the organic category, Shales said.

“At Stemilt, approximately 30 percent of our entire apple crop is grown and certified organic under the Artisan Organics label. We’ve seen a 10 percent year-over-year increase on organics and a slight bump in overall apple supplies year-over-year.”

The company has emphasized growth in Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady and other specialty varietals, and the upshot, Shales said, is that 2018 will have “a nice balanced crop with great quality and promotion opportunities anticipated.”

In those promos, the newer kids on the block are being spotlighted, including Rave and, as part of Stemilt’s participation in the NBT Growers Cooperative, the SweeTango apples for which NBT has the rights to grow and market in North America.

“Honeycrisp is another highlight at Stemilt. Last year we introduced Honeyhill incredible Honeycrisp apples, which focuses on a new, high-quality and high-color strain of Honeycrisp that Stemilt is growing. This special branded box allows retailers to highlight their Honeycrisp as a premium offering to their shoppers, which will continue to elevate Honeycrisp’s position as the top new apple in the category,” Shales said.

In addition to the special packaging for Honeyhill, Stemilt has expanded its line of Artison Organics Apple Lover pouch bags this year, which include a five-pound size.

“We have more varieties available now that this value organic offering has proved successful at retail,” Shales said. And in promotions, Stemilt plans to continue its elevation of Piñata apples and Lil Snappers at retail and directly with consumers through social media and digital consumer outreach.

Shales said Stemilt keeps its eye on consumer trends, and she said, “Honeycrisp and varietals with a similar crunch characteristic have crossed all generations and really raised the bar in terms of the apple-eating experience. For some, Honeycrisp is the variety they seek out, and we’ve seen this variety command apple category data in terms of growth over the past few seasons. I do think older generations are open to trying new apples now that their income might be more disposable, but they also still seek out their favorites that have been around longer than Honecyrisp and others.”