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Launch of Cosmic Crisp could revitalize premium apple industry

By Jean Lotus
Launch of Cosmic Crisp could revitalize premium apple industry
Washington State University will launch the new Cosmic Crisp with a galaxy-sized marketing budget this year. Photo courtesy of Washington State University

Oct. 8 (UPI) -- Washington state, the largest apple producer in the United States, soon will introduce a new variety that developers believe could revitalize the premium segment of the industry.

The Cosmic Crisp, a deep red apple with tiny starlike specks and a crunchy attitude, will launch in December with the help of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign.

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Growers and marketers hope the Cosmic Crisp, a cultivar derived by crossing the Honeycrisp and Enterprise varieties, can become the new flagship apple of Washington state.

The new apple was created over 20 years by horticulturalists at Washington State University, who set out to replicate the crisp bite and sweet tartness of the Honeycrisp, but without the fruit's finicky traits.

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The Honeycrisp has received favorable reviews from apple connoisseurs, and can cost more than twice as much per pound at the supermarket as "commodity" apples like Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith or Fuji.

But the Honeycrisp frustrates growers because of its low harvest yield; only about 50 percent of the fruit makes it out of the orchard, horticulturalists say. Susceptibility to soft scald injury, a skin problem that can develop during cold storage, and bitter pit disorder linked to calcium deficiency make the fruit problematic.

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Developers in Washington note that the new Cosmic Crisp is more robust and easier to harvest and can be stored for up to a year.

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Large crunch

Growers and horticulturalists hope apple lovers will take to the new variety.

"The Cosmic Crisp is extremely juicy and crispy with a large crunch where the texture fractures in your mouth," said Kathryn Grandy, director of marketing and operations at Proprietary Variety Management, a fruit marketing company.

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"People talk about sweet or tart, but the Cosmic Crisp has high level of sugar and equally high level of tartness, which gives it a more interesting, complex flavor," Grandy said.

The apple's acidity makes it slower to brown when sliced, which makes it good for cooking or eating raw, she said.

The apple's official name is WA 38, but focus groups brainstormed the name "Cosmic Crisp" after observing how the apple's white lenticels, or pores, contrasted with its deep-red skin and "look like the night sky," Grandy said.

Cosmic Crisp's $10 million marketing budget over five years is like a Supernova compared to other apple rollouts. The campaign includes high-budget videos, celebrity baking demonstrations, social media marketing and trademarked slogans like "the Apple of Big Dreams."

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For example, to cultivate the school lunchbox crowd, Cosmic Crisp is sponsoring the Missoula Children's Theater's traveling production of the historic American story of Johnny Appleseed. Schoolchildren and parents munch on prepackaged apple slices at performances.

In late August, the program brought aboard six influencers, including retired astronaut and International Space Station commander Leroy Chiao, to tour the country and visit private events to publicize the new apple. They also will promote Cosmic Crisp via social media.

About 450,000 boxes of Cosmic Crisp apples will ship to big grocery retailers such as Walmart, Kroger and Costco starting in December, Proprietary Variety Management said.

Producers plan to ramp up to 5.6 million boxes in 2021 and 21.4 million boxes by 2026.

Too many choices

Cosmic Crisp's marketers say consumer confusion exists over the many apple choices, and this new campaign will develop a consumer "relationship" with Cosmic Crisp.

"Our goal is to make this a global brand," said Lynnell Brandt, president of Proprietary Variety Management and Brandt's Fruit Trees in Yakima, Wash.

Some 40 new types of apple compete in the marketplace -- a number that is overloading consumers, he said.

Indeed, others have tried to improve the Honeycrisp over the years.

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New York-based Snapdragon and RubyFrost apples, both bred from Honeycrisps, were introduced about seven years ago. Developed by horticulturalists at Cornell University, they are licensed in New York state to growers for a $1-per-tree royalty.

The Midwest Apple Improvement Association rolled out EverCrisp apples, another Honeycrisp hybrid, in 2016. Producers hope to plant 1 million trees in the next few years.

The University of Minnesota helped develop SweeTango apples, which are marketed by a collective of family-owned growers.

"It used to take up to 40 years to develop a new variety of apple," said Susan Brown, the Cornell horticulturalist who developed Snapdragon and RubyFrost. Now a new variety can be developed in 15 to 20 years, she said.

Brown also is writing a history of the American apple.

"There has to be marketing because every time a grower is promoting variety, he's got a lot of invested in the land and trellises and trees. Growers don't want to put years of growing time into an apple that no one knows anything about," Brown said.

Word of mouth

The Honeycrisp, developed in 1991 by horticulturalists at University of Minnesota, was a specialty apple sold on farm stands in the Midwest, Brown said.

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"It was so much a unique situation because the crispness and texture really got consumers without a marketing push. Honeycrisp spread by word of mouth and rose to a giant contender within the industry," she said. Growers rushed to produce the fruit, which was not necessarily suited to growing seasons and climates across the United States, Brown said.

Now, tree fruit engineers are trying to perfect the Honeycrisp.

Cosmic Crisp is vital to the state of Washington's apple growers because the state's flagship apple, the Red Delicious, is losing popularity, Brandt said. "Many consumers have rejected the thick-skinned, mealy Red Delicious in favor of more flavorful varieties."

In the 1980s, 75 percent of Washington's apples grown were Red Delicious. As consumers turned away, the industry fell into crisis. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed an emergency Washington apple-farmer bailout that gave each grower an average of $30,000 to save the industry.

Washington is the top-producing apple state in the country, with four times as much orchard acreage as second-place New York, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Michigan is the third top producer. Apple growing in Washington was a $2.4 billion industry in 2017, the agency said.

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Washington apple growers have gone all-in on the Cosmic Crisp, ripping out orchards of Golden Delicious and Red Delicious and planting almost 12 million of the Cosmic Crisp trees, which are patented and can be grown exclusively in Washington for 10 years.

Farmers pay a $1 royalty to Washington State University per tree and 4.25 percent of sales per box over $20.

Farmers are hope the Cosmic Crisp can maintain a high price as a premium apple, which can fetch between $50 and $60 per box, as opposed to commodity apples, which can sell for as low as $15 a box. Lower-priced apples that don't make the cut for grocery stores are used for juice or are processed for applesauce.

Tariffs cut apple exports

Agricultural tariffs are exerting pressure on apple farmers this year. Thirty percent of Washington's apples were produced for export with a high percentage going to India, China and Mexico, Brandt said. India, until recently, still imported lots of Red Delicious apples. But India slapped a 70 percent tariff on apples this year.

Also hurting apple growers are agricultural reprisals from a trade war with China and reduced exports to Mexico.

That's all the more reason that Cosmic Crisps need to succeed to help Washington's farmers, Brandt said.

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Apple growers in other parts of the country worry that Cosmic Crisp's massive entry into the market will create a meteor blast, causing the extinction of locally produced fruit.

"Apple industries are going to be competing more than they ever have for shelf space and price space at the grocery store. I worry that small producers will take the brunt of this," Cornell's Brown said. More than 670 family-owned apple farms operate in New York.

"When you think of the carbon footprint and you buy local apples, you're supporting our beautiful family farms, some of which are fourth- or fifth-generation," Brown said. She noted the the Red Delicious also rose to prominence in the mid-20th century after a nationwide marketing campaign.

"I wish Cosmic Crisp all the best, but I hope consumers will remember local apples are supporting an industry," she said.

Brandt said Cosmic Crisp's expansion plan was not meant to drive out family-farm apple growers.

"We are not there to chase everybody else out -- that's not it," he said. "We are there to be as successful as we can be."

Cosmic Crisp plans to spread marketing internationally to such areas as Europe, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, China and Korea, Brandt said.

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Ultimately in the United States, it will be apple lovers who decide the success of the Cosmic Crisp, an industry spokeswoman said.

"Right now, no one can see what is going to happen with Cosmic Crisp," said Tracy Grondine, director of communications for the U.S. Apple Association. "We'll see what consumers are going to like and where it goes from there."'

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