Feb 25, 2024 - Business

Honeycrisp apple prices fall as orchards finally catch up with demand

A hand picking apples on a conveyer belt

Honeycrisp apples in a Michigan packing facility in 2017. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Honeycrisp's days of sticker-shocking apple eaters may be over.

Why it matters: Minnesotans love Honeycrisps, not just because they were created here and revived local orchards, but because of their texture and taste.

State of play: Average retail prices for the apple variety were $1.70 per pound in early February compared to $2.49 a year prior, according to the USDA.

Catch up fast: After the University of Minnesota released the Honeycrisp in 1991, it quickly caught on and surged to become the third most popular variety in the U.S. and one that consumers were willing to pay top dollar for β€” peaking at around $4 per pound in 2012.

  • Growers responded by rushing to plant trees over the past two decades, according to Jim Luby, horticultural science professor at the U of M.
  • Those trees have reached peak production now, and last year was a bumper crop for Washington, New York and Michigan, which grow a lot of them.

What they're saying: "The supply of Honeycrisp fruit has finally caught up with demand β€” at least for this year," Luby wrote in an email to Axios.

By the numbers: The surplus of the Honeycrisp this winter is 71% higher than the five-year average, wrote James Williams of United Apple Sales.

  • If orchards keep having good harvests, he expects the glut of supply to drag on, which could keep prices depressed for the next several seasons.

The quality question

Eight years ago, apple grower and Cornell University pomology professor emeritus Ian Merwin predicted the Honeycrisp apple would eventually "tank" like other varieties have.

What he's saying (now): "There's no question that the quality that's in the market is not what it was 10 years ago," he told Axios.

What's happening: A few things have led to the decline in quality and prices, according to Merwin.

  • After the University of Minnesota's patent expired in 2008, nurseries began introducing their own versions of Honeycrisp trees that give them a red color, but diminish their flavor, he said.
  • Washington, the top apple-producing state, has been rushing to plant the trees, but most of that state's climate is too warm to produce top quality Honeycrisps, Merwin said.
  • The boom in supply, like we are seeing now, means the apples spend more time in storage, and even with advances in refrigeration technology, that further erodes their quality, he added.

Between the lines: Honeycrisps are an expensive apple to produce because they bruise easily and unlike most varieties, they require two hands to pick, which drives up labor costs.

The intrigue: If they're expensive to produce but prices remain depressed, will growers start removing the trees from their orchards?

  • Merwin said Honeycrisp growers were getting $1,000 a bin for their fruit at the peak β€” a bounty for farmers. But he's seen prices fall as low as $200 a bin.
  • "When the price comes down (to that level), a lot of people are going to really think twice about planting them."

Zoom in: Minnesota's apple growers haven't seen those same big price declines, said Chet Miller, president of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association.

  • Those growers typically sell all of their apples inside of Minnesota, and sell out every season, he said.

Be smart: Minnesota's cold climate makes it an ideal place to grow Honeycrisps, so if you want the best flavors, buy local. That's not always easy, because apples typically aren't labeled beyond their country of origin.

  • But Miller said Minnesota apples are generally harvested between late August and Thanksgiving, and many local grocers advertise when they're Minnesota grown.
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