Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Apple clubs versus the tyranny of the market

Last year a reader asked about the practice of "managed varieties," restricting to a cartel the rights to grow the hottest new apples.

Also called club apples, the licenses to grow these fruits fund the marketing that helps to create demand for them (or, if you like, that brings them gently before a discerning public).

Meanwhile another reader was already looking at club apples and their implications for agriculture, and this week he published his work in the New Yorker.

John Seabrook ("Crunch") tells a fascinating story that includes a brief history of the fruit before zeroing in on the apple club that grows Sweetango, heir (apparently) to Honeycrisp. His enthusiasm for this crisp and flavorful variety is infectious.

Cartels are notoriously profit-maximizing arrangements, but to Seabrook and some of the growers they also promise a kind of creative control: enough market power to defy economic pressure to grow apples that are ever redder, cheaper, and tasteless. To keep Sweetango, for instance, premium and pure.

My own thoughts about that follow; these originally appeared with my review of Seabrook's Crunch. (And for more on club apples, see this 2009 story by Alyssa Vance.)

First of all, about charging me more for better apples. Please do. I already pay a premium for Macouns in season, with enthusiasm. Others are similarly grateful to be able to pay higher prices in order to get their beloved Honeycrisps.

There may be some features of this club that are new, but we have seen like arrangements before for such great varieties as Piñata and Ambrosia.

It is hard to imagine new varieties cracking today's highly structured wholesale markets without such economic battering rams: slick marketing campaigns funded by licensing fees made possible by monopoly.

This is not the 19th century in which new varieties spread by word of mouth or the earnest assessments of horticultural societies.

However, two observations. While Ambrosia and Piñata had impressive debuts (gem-like fruits featured at Whole Foods), Sweetango's rollout has been less than stellar here in New England.

My own samples, from a local supermarket (I also saw bags of tiny bruised Sweetangos at Trader Joe's) were pleasant but nothing special; their texture, elsewhere compared to that of Honeycrisp, was unremarkable.

As one apple breeder tells Seabrook, "When you sell [apples] to a grocery store...that's where quality issues creep in."

Clearly these fruits made their way to me though a supply chain with many pitfalls. Mine had been off the tree for about two months.

I'd have preferred one of Seabrook's, but it's hard to see the club apple as the solution to the distribution problem, which puts the lengths of many arms between the grower and the consumer.

Second, although the quality of all these modern apples is high (sweet, hard, crisp, flavorful, and durable), they are depressingly similar. They lie inches apart on a canvas that is miles wide, as if no one could possibly want anything else.

Sweetango is no exception. The club may hold the line against the degradation of Sweetango but seems powerless against the homogenizing winner-take-all dynamic of mass markets. The promise of the long-tail apple, a nice tart variety to keep Granny Smith company perhaps, or a commercialized russet, is unrealized.

Perhaps a nimble club could do exactly that--patent and trademark a sport of Topaz for instance--and go for the niche market, and do well. Certainly no one else could, and I would cheer.

Let's see a talented marketer, backed by club revenues, transform the unlovely russet into a premium commodity.

Market this! Russets are great apples you never see in supermarkets.
But so far the markets drive the clubs, not the other way around.


  1. We heard lots of hype about Honeycrisp in California, but when they finally arrived they were picked green and were sour with poor color; I'm sure this turned many people off to the brand. It wasn't until years later when I first tasted a tree-ripened one that I realized its full potential. I can understand the University wanting to protect it's investment, as I can understand growers feeling shut out of a product that was funded with taxpayer money. Much of the troubles with the market is because of an apple-ignorant public that now longer grows its own food and tastes with their eyes. Thanks for being a tiny voice in the typhoon hollering for people to increase their apple variety knowledge!

  2. Kevin (kuffle), thank you! It is a pleasure to holler with you.

    I hope all my readers know Kevin's blog, Apples and Oranges.

  3. Hi Adam,

    I have a lot to say on the subject of club apples, but ill leave this comment short and sweet.

    I Personally, have taken it upon myself to market ONLY unusual varieties. As you well know you won't find a honeycrisp or MAC, or anything of the "Big 7" on my farm. When all is said and dine I will have close to 200 trees of various russet apples, with a GREAT supply of each variety. I now have 60 cox oranges, and 60 Karmijn trees. We will top out with a modest 30 trees of Gray pearmain, and the buck doesn't stop there!

  4. Hawk, your plans for your orchard is very much after my own heart. The wholesale market, which supplies what people see in their supermarkets, is not relevant to that project (thank goodness).

    But wholesale markets still matter for other reasons, which is why managed varieties are interesting. Please do share your thoughts sometime.


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