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United Apple pushes through apple season 'perfect storm'

Experience shows that Mother Nature always has the final say even against the bast laid out agriculture business plans. Last fall’s apple season was directly impacted by devasting weather incidents regionally and in the Pacific Northwest. This was coupled by economic challenges with supply chain issues, scarcities in packing material, daunting labor shortages in every aspect of operations, and a transportation market that defied any normalcy with either pricing or availability.

Brett Baker, a fourth-generation grower and part owner of integrated grower/packer/shipper United Apple, said, “Each year each we gear up for the inevitable, unexpected situations in a growing season be it weather, material pricing, or even changes in personnel. Last year, combined all of these and more. It literally pushed a multitude of negative situations to make for a 'perfect storm' of ongoing challenges.”

United Apple and its founder Ward Dobbins established a thriving western New York ag business by working with a group of growers to pack and market their fruit to the best retailers in the region. This enabled the United brand to grow based on offering the highest-quality product and giving retailers the finest fruit to build their produce brand.

“It is always a fluid and dynamic market place where flexibility and commitment are at the core of creating long-term relationships with both growers and retailers. Developing comprehensive plans is a staple of a well-run business but when your contingency plans have multiple contingency plans, it creates a challenging business environment,” said Dobbins.

Apple production

This season the weather directly impacted the quantity of apples and, in some varieties, the sizing of fruit. One indication of the year’s challenge is seen in the overall lower volume of fruit as reported by US Apple Association, which showed a drop in domestic holdings (combining fresh, processing, regular and Controlled Atmosphere fruit) down 5.4 million bushels across all varieties from 131.9 million in 2021 to 126.5 million in 2022. Similarly, volume on a five-year average showed a drop of 12 million bushels compared with the crop year of 2021. 

United has worked diligently to offer retail partners a consistent and robust apple program even in challenging times. With its western New York orchards, volumes have remained strong with core, popular varieties — Gala, Macs, Pink Lady and Red Delicious.

“Our relationship with retail partners includes working with buyers and merchandising groups to create year-long plans to leverage the harvest and build traffic for the category. As part of this season’s crop, we are excited to build on the momentum of new winter varieties: EverCrisp, Ruby Frost and SnapDragon,” noted Baker.

Continued advancements in technology, enabled United to fine tune Controlled Atmosphere programs to extend the season for these emerging varieties. This year’s crop looks particularly strong with great flavor and inventories holding thru June. With steady volume available, retailers can count on these varieties to build promotional programs from now in to early summer.

While each variety has its own flavor profile and characteristics, they have one thing in common. “We are entering a second phase of adoption where consumers are asking for EverCrisp, Ruby Frost and SnapDragon by name. This is a compliment to our retailers and their merchandising teams, who have built awareness and excitement around these late season offerings,” commented Baker.

Shifting consumer trends

Retailers are seeing increasing consumer interest in pre-packed fruit as it reduces the time for consumers selecting product in store and provides convenience for alternative shopping programs such as store pick-up or home delivery options.

United has invested heavily in its automated packing capabilities to keep up with retailer demand for new and varied packaging.  A full line of packaging options with poly bags, kraft and clear totes, and the increasingly popular pouch bags, enable retailers to develop promotions and offer attractive price points.

“We have the ability to customize programs by utilizing a full spectrum of packaging including variety-specific packs and promotional or seasonal themes. This resource has proven beneficial to retailers who rely on us for high-quality product and assistance with merchandising and growing their apple category,” indicated Baker.

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