IFG continues to change face of table grape industry
Established two decades ago by prominent grape growers, International Fruit Genetics (IFG) has developed a robust suite of flavorful grape varieties that has greatly altered the table grape varieties that enter the marketplace from California and around the world.
The company was founded when Jack Pandol Jr. of Pandol Bros. and the Stoller family, owners of Sunridge Nurseries, joined forces with the goal of producing table grapes with superior quality and better taste. Under the direction of well-known fruit geneticist Dr. David Cain, IFG has released more than three dozen varieties in the last decade. The private company utilizes a licensing strategy with growers in many different grape-growing areas to control the supply and quality of the production. Its first wildly successful variety was the Cotton Candy, which was followed to market by a line of flavorful varieties with either Candy or Sweet as the first name. Some of the more popular varieties in this lineup include Candy Hearts, Candy Dreams, and Candy Crunch as well as Sweet Celebration, Sweet Jubilee and Sweet Sapphire. Of course, it has many other varieties that have gained favor with growers including Jack’s Salute and two of its latest varieties Kokomo and Julep.
President Andy Higgins said this summer season growers are ramping up production of several IFG varieties released a few years ago, including many of the aforementioned varieties. What sets the varieties apart are both their flavor and their sweetness. For example, he said Candy Snaps have a strawberry flavor while Candy Hearts have a strong floral essence. Candy Dreams have a very high brix level in the 26 to 28 range, which Higgins said is approaching the level of a chocolate bar.
To put that in context, he said before the revolution to sweeter varieties, led by IFG and other private breeders, fresh table grapes were typically in the 14-16 degree neighborhood. Brix is measured in degrees and represents the number of grams of sucrose present per 100 grams of liquid in that variety. Thompson Seedless, which dominated green grape varieties for decades had a measurement of 16 Brix, while Flame Seedless, which is still the dominant early red variety, has a Brix level of 15.
Higgins said research has shown that the sweet spot, if you will, for most American consumers when it comes to table grapes is in the 16-21 range. He allowed there is a significant subset of the population that have a sweeter pallet and desire grapes in the 22-26 range and even higher, such as the Candy Dreams.
The table grape industry has been marked for generations by a couple of huge winners that become dominant such as Flame Seedless and Thompson Seedless. Today, Autumn King, a fall green variety, is the most popular green being grown while Flame Seedless remains the No. 1 red. In fact, IFG and other breeders are continually looking for a good replacement for those two varieties. However, Higgins said the global marketing of table grapes has created a different dynamic than existed decades ago. What makes it difficult to develop a Flame Seedless for the early part of the California summer deal, for example, is that the variety is competing against late season varieties from Mexico. While the California grower is looking for that early advantage, a plant breeder has to be cognizant of its varieties being produced in other districts. “We have to see the industry with a broader lens when we are thinking of replacement varieties,” he said.
Higgins said in general the 80/20 rule applies with the vast majority of production destined to be produced by relatively few varieties. But he did note that the life cycle of a top variety is being truncated by the many new varieties being introduced every year or two. Thompson Seedless had more than a three-decade long run before its number started dropping precipitously about a decade ago. Today, Higgins said it takes about a decade to bring a new variety to market and he anticipates a life cycle of only 12-14 years on even the very best new varieties.
One issue that grape growers and breeders are facing is the propensity for retailers to continue to sell generic red, green and black grapes. While their fruit cousin the apple has long prospered with varietal separation at retail, grapes are often only sold by color. Higgins said for many consumers that strategy is no longer optimal. Shippers are labeling the newer grapes with their varietal names and progressive retailers are buying those varieties by name — and getting a premium for them.
IFG does produce marketing tools, such as point of sale material, but the company leaves the marketing to the shipper-packers and ultimately the retailer.
Higgins said a trend that saw significant gains in the pandemic year of 2020 was an increased in fixed weight packaging and pricing. Rather than a random weight ring at the registered based on volume in a bag, more and more grapes are showing up at the register with a fixed price and weight in a clamshell. This plays well into the goal of selling these newer, more flavorful varieties by name with their own price point.
Higgins said it also takes the guesswork out of the equation when the consumer is comparing her grape purchase price with that of other competing fruit.
In any event, IFG continues the unending work of developing new and better varieties. Higgins said the company has three or four new varieties in the pipeline soon to be released. One is a yet to be named green variety that is designed to compete with Autumn King as a fall green variety while its new red variety, Torch, could offer some competition for the Flame Seedless.