As the Colorado apple season comes to a close, the Washington Apple Commission is making headlines with the release of a new variety that is set to appear in grocery stores starting in December.
The new Cosmic Crisp is a variation on the popular Honeycrisp, with attractive yellow-speckled skin, a balanced sweet-tart flavor and good storage life.
Still, it is not expected to have much impact in Colorado, mostly because Washington growers, who funded its development, hold exclusive rights to grow it for the next ten years.
Washington dominates the fresh apple industry, accounting for around 60 percent of production nationwide. In addition, the state exports apples to 60 foreign countries.
While Colorado's numbers don't come anywhere close to that, its growers have managed to carve out their own slice of the $4 billion annual market by emphasizing direct marketing and value added processing.
Apples are what Colorado State University extension horticulturlist Susan Carter calls "a high maintenance fruit."
"Apples are hard to make money on unless you are doing a secondary product with them," Carter said recently from her office in Grand Junction. "Most of our orchards range from two acres to a couple hundred acres, but not many of them are big enough to do the packing themselves."
Smaller growers typically funnel their production to a few large packers, such as Rogers Mesa Fruit in Hotchkiss, she said.
Apples are very micro-climate dependent, she added, and tend to do best at higher elevations. Over time many growers in the lower elevations have transitioned to higher value fruit crops, such as peaches, grapes and cherries, she said.
When Bruce Talbott took over the family business in 1985, apples still made up 90 percent of what they grew and sold.
"Apples are one of the healthiest fruits there is," said the Palisade producer who serves on the board of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
"But today we don't grow any apples," he continued. "The market has changed, and as much as we hated to give it up, we couldn't get market access with all the consolidation of the grocery store chains. Washington, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania are able to supply the chains, and the rest of us are left groveling for the crumbs."
"Most of the remaining apples are in Delta County and a high percentage of them are organic," he added. "Those growers have found a niche that has allowed them to thrive."
Walt Rosenberg, who owns several orchards in the Ft. Collins area, is one of the largest fruit growers along the Front Range. He has also been forced to downsize his apple production.
"We sold a couple of orchards this year. Age was the main reason, but more people are getting out than are getting in," the owner of Masonville Orchards said. "We sold one of the orchards to some guys who will keep running it as a pick-your-own orchard, but that tends to be not so much the norm anymore."
Rosenberg said the rollout of the new Cosmic Crisp reflects a notable shift in how apple varieties are developed and distributed.
The introduction of the popular Honeycrisp, back in the 1990s, set those changes in motion. Prized for its crispness and flavor, the University of Minnesota release was what Rosenberg describes as a big home run.
But high demand drew a flood of plantings, and breeders and growers began to worry that the glut of production was driving down quality and harming the variety's reputation.
So when the university came out with a next generation hybrid, the SweeTango, it put in place a stiffer licensing agreement to control quality and limit supply. Other new variations on the Honeycrisp have followed that same model.
While introducing a new variety is one way to capture the attention of consumers, it doesn't solve the bigger issue of how to keep grocery store apples fresh after long periods in storage, Rosenberg said.
What has made the Honeycrisp and its derivatives so popular is that they stand up to storing and shipping better than the Red Delicious, which has turned off consumers with its bland taste and mealy texture.
"The modern Red Delicious was bred for seven criteria but not one of them is taste," Rosenberg said. "It's all about having a common shape, size and color, and the ability to store and ship. It's pretty easy for breeders to create a variety that meets those characteristics: the first thing they do is breed the sugar out of them, because that's what causes them to deteriorate in storage."
Once a seasonal fruit, apples have been turned into something that stores well enough to offer year-round, he added.
Whereas Rosenberg has already picked and sold all of this year's crop, the Cosmic Crisp won't start arriving in stores for another month.
"It will probably be two months old by the time is is released," he said.
While the Honeycrisp is as popular in Colorado as it is nationally, the state's growers tend to be diversified among varieties, noted Carter, the horticulturist in Grand Junction.
"One thing we kind of like about it is that people are growing different things. You don't just find Honeycrisp around here," she said. "In some ways, the growers all have their own little niche, which is kind of refreshing. I like to make applesauce at this time of year, and I always prefer to use more than one variety."
The diversity reflects the way apples are marketed in Colorado. Most are sold direct to consumers or turned into processed items like sauces or ciders.
"Some of the orchards are getting into the hard cider, because that's a way to get more bang for your buck," Carter said, noting new uses often lead to new varieties being brought in.
Rosenberg sells what he calls "odd-ball apples" to Colorado cideries as well as on-line and at farmers markets.
"Around 95 percent of the varieties we sell you won't see in the grocery store," he said, adding that older varieties are often more popular than something new.
"Apple varieties are really a regional thing," he added. People from around the country who stop in at his farm are elated to get their hands on regional favorites like Jonathans, Wine Saps, Macouns, Snows or Gravensteins.
As for his personal preference, "I get asked that all the time, and I always say my favorite is the one that sells," he said.
But a few moments later he added, "An old variety I really like is the Sweet 16. It's a grandparent of the Honeycrisp."