ApplesConsumer Standards Taunts Apple Growers
When you buy apples you could be contributing to grower’s problems. The reason for this is that growers are required to meet unrealistic standards to supply the perfectly “manufactured” apple demanded by the consuming public. In reality nature is not perfect yet a complex system of manufacturing techniques is used to quality control fruit to the high cosmetic perfection standard demanded by the consumer.
Insects, fungal and bacterial diseases, physiological disorders and cosmetic demands all can cause fruit to be non-commercial or down graded to a lower paying category. The high standards demanded force growers, both conventional and organic, to apply numerous sprays to meet consumer demands. This is the same consumer that complains about the sprays needed to attain the cosmetic standard they want.
A grower needs to be somewhat of an expert in safely applying the chemicals, nutrient and growth regulators that are required to satisfy the “visual perfection” demanded of the market and of course able to absorb their cost. In spite of the challenges and the grower’s efforts to meet them, only a small fraction of the retail price ends up in the grower’s pocket.
One disorder, apple scab, can be a very serious problem and require control sprays from time to time. The marketing position on cosmetic damage at this level is understandable. The seriousness of pin point scab however, is questionable from a grower’s point of view but understandable considering federal regulations that state, “a single spot cannot be identified as pin point scab” in order to meet Canada Fancy or Extra Fancy grades. There are many examples where fruit is downgraded because of minor defects that drop the grower’s return by 75% or more.
Colour has also become extremely important in marketing. Again, in dealing with cosmetics, the consumer insists on a somewhat unrealistic demand. Although fruit colour may have no relationship to flavour or “crunch” it is easy to monitor and important to produce managers in big box stores who depend heavily on visual impact when selling produce.
In order to meet these high colour standards growers are often forced to leave perfectly good eating quality fruit on the tree, delay picking beyond optimum maturity for long term storage and suffer the financial losses due to downgrading.
It is interesting that the genetic selection that goes into improving colour in many varieties has proven to reduce flavour. I tried to argue that the variety Jonagold should be marketed as a yellow apple with a red blush and outstanding taste, but red selections of the variety became popular in the market because of their visual attraction. Coloured selections brought more money to the grower, obviously an important factor to those growing the variety.
A Washington grower who had several strains of Jonagold once told me that there was no question that the redder strains brought him more money but, he added, when selecting fruit for his personal use he chose an early, less colourful and tastier strain.
Does this support what the marketers are telling us? Do consumers really prefer colour over taste? Do consumers have much of a choice?
The third example of a market restriction which seems to unnecessarily penalize growers is the limited size range that the consumer places on their fruit selection. Apple sizes are reported as number of apples per 40 lb box. The basic size range is from 56’s to 150’s (apples per 40 lb box). However, growers are led to believe that only three sizes are popular with consumers,100’s, 88’s and 80’s. The relative fruit diameter per apple for each size is shown in table #1. The large and very small apples are costly to growers.
My impression when talking to people with small children is that smaller apples are preferred over larger apples. Years ago while retailing apples in Ontario we would specifically buy smaller apples (125’s or 138’s) and feature them as lunch box apples. Great for school children! When I came to the Okanagan in the 1970s I found that the small apples went only into bags, juice or the cull bin and the grower got a fraction of the return they got for an identical apple size 100. With some varieties, a half-inch drop in diameter to size 150 finds a 20-plus-cent per-pound drop for the grower to less than a penny a pound.
Larger apples have an enhanced potential for internal breakdown and rots. This forces the industry to spray more in order to control this “important” parameter demanded by consumers.
These three simple examples are representative of a multitude of production restrictions growers face in order to satisfy consumer demands. These restrictions placed on the product are considered necessary by marketers in order to compete in an over-supplied market but appear unnecessary or costly by grower perceptions.
Major limitations set on the product are largely cosmetic but require detailed and expensive management by growers. Is it the consumer or the retailer that has determined that minor defects, colour and size are so important? Isn’t there some manoeuvrability within the system to shift the advantage more toward the grower?
Where these artificially high standards are relaxed, such as small independent grocers, farmers markets and at the farm gate, you will find equally nutritious product and better grower returns.