In the United States, you can walk into nearly any grocery store, almost any day of the year, and more often than not, you’ll find a selection of apples. Even though most apples are harvested in just several busy weeks spanning from late summer to early fall, Americans have grown accustomed to having apples available as a year-round shopping list staple.
But the process of ensuring that there’s a steady stream of apples available any time of year requires thousands of dedicated growers—not to mention all the suppliers who support those growers, as well as the professionals who harvest, store, transport, and market apples to keep them available in retail or food service settings or for processing into other apple foods and beverages. Just one apple’s journey from bloom to bite is much more intricate than most consumers likely consider each time they grocery shop.
It’s a little overwhelming to imagine all of the things that need to go right in order to get an apple to grow to have the proper size, shape, color, flavor and texture—not to mention all the work that ensures apples are harvested at the appropriate time, stored and transported in the premium conditions, and brought to retail locations where customers are excited to purchase specific apple varieties. Perhaps most importantly, many of these factors are beyond the control of the experts working within the process, like the weather, for example.
For this article, we’re excited to share the perspectives from some of the apple pros who know this process best. We sat down with U.S. Apple board members Elizabeth Wittenbach of Michigan and Ryan Hess of Pennsylvania and USApple Board Chair Kaari Stannard of New York. Each share their unique insights into the apple industry—from bloom to bite.
First, Elizabeth Wittenbach, a fifth-generation grower at Wittenbach Orchards, shares her unique perspective on the climate and geographical uniqueness of west-central Michigan—one of the top-producing apple regions in the country. She explains the lay of the land that impacts apple growth and the fruit’s qualities. Many old and diverse varieties can thrive in her area of Michigan, where her orchards are filled with Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji, SweeTango, Macintosh and Jonagold. But there’s also plenty of challenges for growers each day as they work to bring their orchards to a healthy harvest. Michigan’s humid climate, for example, is moderated by the great lakes, but that extra humidity (compared to arid central Washington) means different disease and insect pressures.
She describes some of the most common challenges and the strategies she uses to help apples grow to the ideal size, develop their beautiful, iconic coloring, and delicious, juicy taste.
In the spring, the combination of chilly temperatures and wetness for an extended period can result in infection called apple scab, a disease caused by fungus that results in black or grey-brown lesions on the surface of tree leaves, buds or apples themselves. Early in the season, chilly nighttime temperatures can also cause problems for growers. Just a few degrees can mean the difference between a small percentage of buds dying and losing the entire crop. Once blooming occurs, the temperature is even more critical. Temperatures above 29 degrees are generally safe, but 26 degrees can be devastating. Microsprinklers and wind machines help to prevent freezing—even flying a helicopter over the farms can help to circulate warmer air down to the tree level.
Through the summer, the primary concern is water, which can vary significantly from year to year. “Some years, we’re are perfectly fine and hardly have to use water,” Wittenbach explains. “There are still farms that don’t use any water,” because there is plenty of rain.
In especially dry years, irrigation becomes critical. In 2018, Wittenbach’s orchards were 100 percent irrigated and needed water the entire summer. But irrigation and rainwater are not equal in terms of what it can do for the fruit, she explains. Michigan growers saw smaller fruit sizes this year, which is typically associated with more rainfall. Wittenbach shares that rainwater can more easily bring apples to the ideal size than irrigation water can, but Michigan’s especially hard irrigation water can impact nutrient uptake, and thus the size of the fruit.
“There is still plenty of research to be done regarding irrigation water in Michigan, but there are plenty of adjustments you can put on the irrigation to filter the water,” Wittenbach explains. For example, running sulfuric acid when irrigating can help to bind up free ions, making the water less hard so that fruit trees can absorb nutrients more efficiently.
When we ask about what most shoppers don’t know about their apples, but should, Wittenbach talks of the year-round efforts that go into taking care of apple orchards. Like most living creatures, apple trees are ready for some rest after a long period of labor. After harvest is over, apple trees are prepared for dormancy, which gives them several months of downtime until the proper temperature and light conditions indicate it is time to break dormancy. These chilling hours are critical to their ability to bear fruit each year, which is why states like Michigan, with cold, snowy winters, give apple trees ample dormancy.
Picking & Transporting
Ryan Hess and his team at Hess Brother’s Fruit Company in Pennsylvania are experts at sourcing and distributing premium apples, working with a curated selection of growers throughout the mid-Atlantic region to find the right time for picking. Here he shares his expertise as a leader in the family-owned packing & shipping company, from helping determine ideal picking dates to ensuring apples are protected in transit.
Every variety has different telltale signs of readiness, says Hess, and additional pressure testing and sugar content testing helps to ensure that the variety is ready to be picked. Most of all, “you just have to listen to the apples,” he says.
The number one quality customers look for in apples, Hess tells us, is hardness. During harvest and the storage process, checking the pressure of the apples ensures that crisp, crunchy bite. In storage, apples can lose pressure, which affects the hardness of the fruit. To ensure the fruit retains the proper pressure throughout the storage process, they need to be picked at a time when they can lose some pressure naturally, and still retain that delicious, crisp bite.
With bi-colored apples, like Gala, which has both green or yellow and red in them, picking at multiple times throughout harvest is commonplace to ensure the fruit is at peak condition and coloring. With Honeycrisp, growers look for the dark red, and for the green to begin turning yellow. If it’s too hot or cloudy, the color may not reach the ideal color, but it may still be time to pick to ensure the proper sugar content and crispness.
Coordinating when to pick not only means determining when the apples are ready, but also staging the harvest properly to ensure that each variety is picked at the proper moment and that there are always apples to pick throughout the entire harvest so that the work is spread out. In Virginia and Pennsylvania, where most of Hess Brothers’ grower partners are based, Gala harvesting can start as early as the first weeks of August in Virginia, and Pennsylvania soon follows toward the end of the month.
“You’re picking apples through this window,” says Hess. “The earlier harvested apples (the firmer ones) will be better for a longer amount of time and should go into storage for spring-summer consumption, whereas apples at the end of harvest are more ready to eat because of a higher sugar content and will be sold throughout the fall.”
When apples aren’t going to be sold immediately during the popular fall season, they go into storage to ensure there is a supply for the rest of the year.
“Because all the apples for the whole year are picked in 12 weeks, most of the apples go into storage,” says Hess. “The name of the game is to get them out of the sun and into a cooler as quickly as possible.”
The ideal storage temperature depends on the variety and the length of time at which it will be stored. For example, Hess shares that Red Delicious should be stored between 32 and 33 degrees, whereas Honeycrisp should start the storage process at 55 degrees for the first week, and then the temperature is gradually dropped to 38 degrees for longer-term storage.
Bringing the temperature down too quickly can also be problematic, leading to chilling disorders that result in internal browning, soft scald on the outside, and soggy breakdown that you can’t see unless the apple is cut open.
When it comes to transporting apples from growers to processors or retailers, ensuring a smooth ride is critical. Air-ride trailers, which replace a standard steel spring with compressed air, are used to prevent bruising over long distances.
This year, the apple industry saw one of the biggest signs of consumer tastes diversifying—the Red Delicious is no longer the most-produced apple in the United States. The top spot now belongs to Gala, a sweeter, crisper bite with more nuance than the classic, but mild red delicious. Other sweeter, flavorful varieties like Honeycrisp have become fast favorites among consumers.
Kaari Stannard tells us that keeping up with these ever-changing tastes is a significant challenge for marketers. As owner of New York Apple Sales, Inc., one of the largest marketers of apples in that state, Stannard shares her insights on the years-long process of keeping up with consumer taste trends and shrinking retail spaces—and how she translates that information to the growers who are working to meet the rapid changes in consumer demand and taste preferences.
As the messenger connecting growers with retailers, she provides vital insights that can shape the future of what a grower produces, working with them on a daily basis to translate consumer patterns and strategize about what is likely to happen next. “I’ve been in the business since 1996,” says Stannard. “I can lend the most valuable information to the growers on a daily basis…working with them on what I see happening with varieties.”
“It takes us four years to get a new variety from the tree out into the market, and you can’t just take all the old varieties out,” she continues. Her relationships with growers helps her company make decisions about communicating what they should prioritize, and how to make that work when consumer taste changes much faster than apple varieties can. Finding ways to innovate and invest in the future of the growers’ business is essential.
“On the farm, we’re always looking for investments in robotics in our structures, in the different systems that we’re using,” she explains. “This includes 2-d tree structures to help mitigate the challenges of labor shortages and solar panels for packing facilities and working to use less water.”
When it comes to the produce aisle, Stannard is always working to find new ways for the apple industry to tell an interesting story that makes shoppers excited to try a new flavor or see a grocery list staple in a new way. One way this happens is through packaging, which helps the apple industry and retailers deliver convenience and value to shoppers.
“A lot of my time is spent looking at new packaging in a way that’s going to tell a great story,” Stannard shares. Of course, finding ways to make packaging that is more sustainable is the current focus. Packaging that can be recycled or reused (like pouch bags) or new press-to-seal packaging with a reduced plastic footprint, compared to a clamshell, is becoming increasingly popular.
As the link between growers and retailers, Stannard’s job is to see the big picture and to work to make the long-term future of the apple industry one where growers can thrive, continue to be good stewards of the land, and help retailers and consumers have access to delicious and healthy varieties they love. There are so many factors that can impact this process, but consistency is the key element in building a trusted relationship with retailers and consumers.
“We have to put out a consistent product—no matter what the new variety is,” says Stannard. “Consumers will come back because you’re consistent.”