Chelan Fresh expects emerging apple varieties to be in demand
While multiple apple growers have been involved with organics since the late 80s and early 90s, Chelan Fresh was one of the first and has enjoyed success in the organic category.
“It has evolved into larger volumes and more current varieties while phasing out less desirable ones,” said Kevin Stennes, organic sales manager for the Chelan, WA-based company. “We have recently added organic SugarBee, Rockit and Cosmic Crisp.”
To succeed in organics, he noted you need dedicated and committed growers as well as a packing operation that understands the organic segment and the additional requirements.
“Organic growers have an additional level of farming requirements,” Stennes said. “They are required to meet, which can be challenging but rewarding.”
In 2021, he sees more excitement around proprietary and emerging varieties like Organic SugarBee, Organic Rockit and Cosmic Crisp.
“Organic Gala demand continues to surprise me,” Stennes said. “I also continue to see increasing excitement and demand around organic pears.”
Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan Fresh, noted pouch bags continue to provide grab-and-go options for consumers.
“Chelan Fresh pouch bags are clearly displayed with the variety, specific weight in the bag and a clear view of the fruit,” he said. “QR codes are making a comeback and allow consumers to scan at the store level for more information about who grows and where the fruit is grown. Consumers are craving this connection to the grower.”
While there was a large spike in demand for apples at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Riggan noted it moderated out into relatively predictable demand in the latter months.
“People are trying to eat better, and apples are a big part of that,” Riggan said. “Apples are great for your immune system, so I’m pretty optimistic about this year’s apple crop for Washington farmers and for retailers, and consumers alike.”
He added that organic apples are an important part of the company’s product portfolio because it allows consumers to have more choices.
“The more choices you can give a consumer, the more value you have to the retailer, which in turn creates more value for the grower,” he said. “For the end-user, organic apples are simply just a matter of choice. They’re not proven to be any healthier or any better, but some people would rather have apples grown this way.”
One thing that was missed during the pandemic was live demos of apples and sampling at retail stores, which Riggan noted can go a long way toward driving awareness of new varieties — especially for organics.
“Believe it or not, a lot of people might not realize that there’s an organic department because they’re just not looking for it,” Riggan said. “Retailers can do a lot on their websites to drive the health and wellness message, specifically on apples, because I think consumers are going to their websites a lot more, wanting to know what they can get at a store without having to go in.”
Taking an early look at this year’s crop, he expects volumes of apples to be relatively static compared to the 2020 crop.
“We were initially concerned about fruit sizing due to the historically hot summer, but we are excited to see sizing come along better than anticipated,” he said.
A big part of being successful in the biz is to have great relationships with growers, and that all starts with strong communication and working hard to provide sustainable financial returns to the farm, Riggan added.
On the retail front, he noted that the company experiences a significant increase in sales when stores take the time to build displays and merchandise organic product.
“Consumers love to have options and they may choose organic when there is a display,” Riggan said. “Also, moving organic apples to the front of produce sections gives them more visibility.”
For now, Chelan Fresh is not looking to expand, as Riggan admitted it’s been a tough year on cherries and many growers are just looking to recoup some losses with what they hope to be a good apple harvest.
“We’re not planning on expanding out warehouses or add new fruit; we’ve done all that and now we’re just kind of in cruise control,” he said. “We just get up every day and try to hunker down and manage our costs as best we can. But the whole time you’re managing costs, you’re spending money and research to be relevant, innovative, and valuable to somebody and you can’t do that without investing.”