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Organic apples on the mind at Chelan Fresh

Chelan Fresh represents the growers of Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties in Washington state, and has a strong presence in the organic apple category.

“We are heavy to Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji, Granny and Pink Lady and grow 100 percent of the organic SugarBee variety,” said Kevin Stennes, organic sales manager for the Chelan, WA-based company. “We will ship approximately 1.5 million cases this year which includes apples, pears, cherries, plums and Pluots. Approximately 2,500 acres are in organic production.”

2lb ORGANIC Honeycrisp Chelan Fresh first became involved in organics in 2013, though Stennes was a seasoned vet by the time he joined the company that year, having been working in organic production since the late ’90. Plus, many of the company’s growers have been growing organics well before it started the organic program. Over his tenure with Chelan Fresh, he has seen organics become more mainstream and he noted the company is benefitting from the increased production and demand.

“Organic pricing has become more aggressive. The 2018 crop was a big jump from previous years and this 2019 crop is another large expansion in supply,” Stennes said. “We continue to see demand grow with supply, but at pricing that is decreasing. Organics have become more mainstream — less of a niche area where buyers were creative and flexible. Specs are adhered to pretty closely and there is less flexibility to jump on opportunities.”

The 2019 apple season has been aided by pretty mild weather during the growing season, and all the organic apples were harvested before the freeze that came. For that reason, Chelan Fresh anticipates a nice crop of apples that are storing well. Skyrocketing costs remain the company’s biggest challenge.

“Pricing is decreasing while costs are increasing quickly — largely due to labor needs,” Stennes said. “We really aren’t able to combat this challenge other than sell fruit for every dollar and cent we can get back to the growers.”

Tech changes is something else the company takes seriously and pays great attention to. Stennes said that some organic products are being phased out of use, but the company is gaining use of new products for organic production and newer plantings are planted with the intention of being “robot ready.”

Looking to 2020, the company has several growth initiatives planned that should yield moderate growth in Honeycrisp, Fuji, SugarBee and pear varieties. The biggest news currently at the company is its efforts with organic SugarBee apples.

“The SugarBee is an amazing apple gaining huge popularity in the marketplace,” Stennes said. “We have certified organic SugarBee apples this year. We anticipate being sold out by the New Year — but future seasons will offer a longer supply.”

Mac Riggan, director of marketing for Chelan Fresh, shared one way retailers can help with organic sales is by avoiding mis-rings at the register.

“I think a lot of the fruit is getting rang up as conventional,” he said. “Ironically, packaging is the one way to combat that because you can’t misread a pouch bag because of the QR code.”

Success in the organic category for retailers, he added, also comes from being offensive, not defensive.

“If you’re just going to carry organic apples because the guy down the street has it, you’re not going to be successful,” Riggan said. “You need to brag about it, hype it up in the store and build a destination in the store so people will come to the store to buy it, and it’s not just an impulse buy.”