GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — At first glance, the trees look like the runts of the litter, falling several feet shorter than their taller, broader peers. Their fruit is far from an enticing "Snow White"-apple red. Yet, Honeycrisp apples still cost up to $3 a pound — sometimes more — in grocery stores.
So what's the deal with Honeycrisp, the hybrid apple variety that is now among the most popular in the country and has consumers ignoring its price tag?
"Honeycrisp is the fastest-growing variety in the nation, with production tripling in the last five years," Wendy Brannen, director of Consumer Health & Public Relations for the U.S. Apple Association, told TheBlaze. "It can take that long to grow enough acreage and successfully market a crop for it to take hold in the market. But, boy when Honeycrisp took off, it really took off!"
Within the last two decades, the country has fallen in love with Honeycrisp apples. Those who frequent Robinette's Apple Haus & Winery, a smaller producer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are no different. There, Honeycrisps outsell other apples two to one, said Ed Robinette, who's owned the family orchard for nearly 30 years.
Standing in between two rows of the popular fruit tree on an unseasonably warm September day, Robinette said the Honeycrisp boom is unlike anything he's ever witnessed before.
Ed Robinette of Robinette's Apple Haus & Winery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said the boom of Honeycrisp apples among consumers is unlike anything he's seen growing up in the apple business. (Photo credit: Liz Klimas/TheBlaze)
But where did this apple that packs such a juicy punch come from? And why is it so much more expensive than its other pome counterparts?
The Mysterious Creation of a Star Apple
The Honeycrisp apple has captivated consumer attention really within the last decade, but its history goes all the way back to the 1960s. And while you might be hoping its prices will drop soon, a variety of factors might keep it a top-shelf apple for longer than Honeycrisp lovers would like.
The apple is a hybrid developed by the University of Minnesota in the 1960s. While it had two parents listed in the record books, later genetic analysis revealed something interesting: neither of those credited with its parentage actually produced the apple, said Jim Luby, the university's director of fruit breeding and a professor in the horticultural science department.
Instead, DNA testing revealed Honeycrisp to be a cross between Keepsake, a hybrid itself, and another unknown apple.
"It adds a bit of mystery to it," Luby told TheBlaze, explaining that the apple's other parent likely never made it as an official variety and thus was not recorded at the time.
If it was drummed up a half a century ago, why does it seem that Honeycrisp cropped out of nowhere in just the last few years?
Luby said the university didn't introduce the hybrid to nurseries until the 1990s and even then, it took some convincing to generate demand among growers and consumers.
"One of problems with any new apple is it’s hard to get growers to grow a new apple that there’s no consumer demand for," Luby said. "It took a long time for growers to pick up on it."
Honeycrisp apples were originally bred for Minnesota's climate, but they were later found to grow well in other more northern states too. Its appeal, however, is nationwide. (Photo credit: Liz Klimas/TheBlaze)
Becoming popular in the upper Midwest first — in 2006 it became Minnesota's official state fruit — Honeycrisp eventually spread locally and now is growing in states that can support its delicate nature. According to the U.S. Apple Association, Honeycrisp ranks fifth on the list of best-selling apples, behind Gala, Red Delicious, Fuji and Granny Smith.
But its demand is still growing: Luby said nurseries can't grow enough of the trees to meet the demand of orchard growers, and orchards can't keep up with consumers' ravenous appetites.
Robinette's started its first Honeycrisp trees in the late 1990s after learning about them from another orchard.
"We first got some from another grower to sell here in our store and they just flew off the shelves," Jim Robinette said. "So, [we thought,] 'Yikes, we gotta get some trees and plant them.' And so we did."
Honeycrisp Is Sensitive
Robinette's, a small farm that's been in the same family for more than 100 years, now has several hundred Honeycrisp trees on its more than 120 acres.
Of those, Honeycrisp is the most popular variety, but it's also "one of the most difficult to grow," Robinette said.
"They're an early apple … [ripening] soon after Labor Day. So we'll get them all picked, all off the tree, in the cooler and what we have is what we're going to have for the whole season," Robinette said.
Adding to their early season are a whole host of other issues that make growing Honeycrisp and keeping it available for consumers more difficult than other trees. When they start to bear fruit, he said, they also stop growing.
The first year Robinette's Honeycrisp trees were ready to crop, they allowed them to produce as much as they could. In the long run though, Robinette said this stunted the growth of the tree.
"Here it is at 6 to 8 feet tall," he said.
With the next round of trees that the farm plans to plant, Robinette said, they'll prevent apples from growing for an additional two to three years to get a taller tree. Height is important, because when he plants trees about 3 feet apart, Robinette needs them to reach about 11 feet tall to produce enough fruit to be worth the real estate he's giving them on the orchard.
"It's got several storage disorders," Robinette added. "Honeycrisp, if you put them in [the cooler] at 34 degrees right off the tree, you'll burn them. ... the skin all turns brown and they're ruined. We did that first year and what a disaster — you've just destroyed thousands of dollars of fruit."
Robinette explained that later research from universities found that Honeycrisp has to be conditioned in the shade for a week without refrigeration. Only then can the apples be put into a 38-degree cooler for storage.
Another factor driving up the Honeycrisp cost is that the fruit doesn't ripen evenly. Robinette said his pickers have to go out about two times in the season. Honeycrisps also have sensitive skin, which Robinette said has growers paying pickers to cut the stems when they come off the trees — an extra step compared to other varieties.
"The Honeycrisp has a very thin skin. It's very tender and if the stem is sticking out and they bump each other, it will punch a hole in the apple next door and ruin it."
Are They Worth It?
So are Honeycrisp apples worth all the fuss to produce?
"They are," Robinette said, noting that they charge more for them and limit consumers to purchasing them only in the half-peck bag, not by the pound as the orchard allows with other apple varieties.
Still, he's "probably not getting rich on it" because of all of the effort involved.
But the "customer loves that apple. They start asking for it in August and will keep asking for it after it's gone. It's a high-demand apple."
Going forward, Robinette said, they've ordered more Honeycrisp trees for the orchard. Some of these trees are expected to have a better color due to a mutation that has allowed nurseries to refine and select for this more attractive trait. But he'll probably have to wait until 2019 to even get them in the ground.
"They are very hard to get," Robinette said. "There's such high demand for that better colored Honeycrisp."
Robinette said he even put in an order for a thousand more of the traditional Honeycrisp trees in case the more attractive type never shows up.
Will the supply ever satiate the demand and drive the price of the apple a bit lower?
"That's the one thing that hasn't happened with Honeycrisp, because it isn't so easy to grow mass acreage of it and get huge supply," Robinette said.
Eventually, though, he said he would expect the price to drop somewhat.
"Nobody saw [Honeycrisp] coming and they're not going to see the next one. It's the public, it's the consumer that is going to say, Tthis is the apple I want. We want more.' It's not the other way around."
Robinette said the public's opinion on fruit in general has changed recently as well.
"It used to be visual. They wanted a red and a certain shape and size," he said. "[Now, they're] willing to look at any apple if it tastes good."
For the industry as a whole, Brannen with the U.S. Apple Association said the "Honeycrisp phenomenon is invigorating for our industry on many levels, including the development of additional varieties."
So, there might be new apple varieties in our future that could be just as exciting as the mottled but lovable Honeycrisp.