Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Honeycrisp apple prices are finally falling. Will they be sustainable income for Minnesota farmers in the future?

Honeycrisp apples
Honeycrisp apples in early October.
Paul Huttner | MPR News 2023

The premium price for Honeycrisp apples is finally starting to drop as supply exceeds demand. The USDA reported the average retail price for Honeycrisp apples was $1.70 per pound in early February, compared to $2.49 in 2023.

They’re an expensive apple to produce, so with prices falling, what does the future of the iconic Honeycrisp look like? As orchards across the state get into planting season, MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke to Charlie Johnson, the owner of Whistling Well Farm in Hastings, an orchard and wholesale apple supplier to many local grocery stores and schools.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: This is Minnesota Now here on MPR News. I'm Cathy Wurzer. Thanks for being with us. It's possible you've noticed this. It's cheaper to buy the wildly popular Honeycrisp apple, the official fruit of the state of Minnesota. The USDA reported the average retail price for Honeycrisp apples was $1.70 per pound in early February compared to $2.49 last year.

They're an expensive apple to produce. So with prices falling, what does the future of the iconic Honeycrisp look like? As orchards across the state get into the planting season, we're talking with Charlie Johnson, the owner of Whistling Well Farm and Hastings, orchard and wholesale apple supplier to many local grocery stores and schools. Charlie, how are you?

CHARLIE JOHNSON: I'm good today. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Good. Thanks for joining us. Well, gosh, that seems like a pretty big price dip. Did that come as a surprise to you?

CHARLIE JOHNSON: It does and it doesn't. I think I can explain it. To begin with, 60% of all apples grown in the US are grown in Washington. And the 2023 Washington apple crop was up 28% above their 2022 crop. So that increase in production takes-- goes from 104 million boxes in their 40 pounds boxes to 134 million boxes. So that's a big difference in what-- that's a $30 million box increase.

And we've also found that Washington has overplanted on Honeycrisp. And so they're sitting with a lot of apples that they don't know quite what to do with.

CATHY WURZER: OK, so we have an Apple glut going on, Honeycrisp apple glut.

CHARLIE JOHNSON: It's a Honeycrisp apple glut. But then, we can talk about the difference. And they also lost a big account with India, which-- where they took almost 50% of their apples and then down to 1%. So yeah, they are sitting with a lot of apples and they continue to plant Honeycrisp because they replaced the Red Delicious with Honeycrisp. But it's not it's not the same apple.

CATHY WURZER: OK, I want to ask about the apple in terms of where it's planted. Yes, we know Washington state is a big apple growing state. Help me out. When Honeycrisp was first introduced, wasn't it just a Minnesota based apple?

CHARLIE JOHNSON: It was. And it wasn't set as a club apple like some of the others. So it was open to everyone. But again, it was an apple developed by the University of Minnesota as a regional apple. Not intended for out of our region because of the growing conditions.

For ripening properly, it requires a wide temperature spread between day and night. And that gives us its-- the sweet tart taste. And Washington just does not have that spread. It's sort of flat. And so you'll be able to spot a Washington apple because it'll have more green, yellow, and not that nice bright red color that our Honeycrisp has.

CATHY WURZER: Do they taste differently, the Washington state?

CHARLIE JOHNSON: Absolutely. Yeah. There's no-- I tried-- I can't tell you what it tastes like because I didn't think it had a taste. There's no comparison. And I think our customers will realize that.

CATHY WURZER: Well, does this present-- well, it seems like it presents an issue for you, obviously, with these lower priced apples flooding the market. What are you thinking might happen here to your business?

CHARLIE JOHNSON: Well, right now for our business and for the other orchards around Minnesota, we have already marketed our Honeycrisp and most of our apples. So for the rest of this year, it's not going to have a real big impact. But I think that, in the future, we're going to have to do more with promoting the Honeycrisp.

And also, we have-- it isn't just a Honeycrisp apple. We have First Kiss, Sweetango, Zestar, Snow Sweet, Haralson, and then the newest apple out of the university, which would be the Kudu, which is a Honeycrisp Zestar cross. So when we go into next season, we're going to come in with some really good apples.

Because Honeycrisp is not our main-- it's a very popular apple. And yes, it is one of the main ones, but we sell an awful lot of these other varieties.

CATHY WURZER: You mentioned marketing. And I'm wondering, given what you just said about how Minnesota based apples tastes better than the Washington state brand, as it were, I mean, would this offer an opportunity, especially here in the region, to really sell that?

CHARLIE JOHNSON: Yes. And I think that Department of Ag is aware of that. And they will do more promoting of not just the Honeycrisp, but our other apples also. And then, I think the university will maybe do some promoting too. And the other thing is that our customers, a lot of them they come to the orchard for the orchard experience to go out and pick their own apples.

They like to know where the apples came from. Where you get a Washington apple that-- again, those have been in storage right now for over six months. The ride from Washington to Minnesota is over 1,500 miles. And so you really don't really know how that-- long that apple has been in storage. Where we pretty well market ours as they come in. And so they are fresh and they do have that taste that they should have.

CATHY WURZER: So let me ask you about planting. I have to be honest, I did not know that apple growers keep planting trees. I guess that makes some amount of sense, right? I didn't know that you had to keep that process going. I figured once you had a tree, you had a tree.

So are you planning to plant more Honeycrisps? Or might that not be the best idea given what's happening in Washington state?

CHARLIE JOHNSON: No, people will continue to plant more Honeycrisp because we are able to market our apples. We do not have the problem that Washington has when it comes to marketing.

So no, we will continue planting. And the other thing is that, in an orchard, they say probably every year you should replace 10% of your trees with new varieties, newer trees that grow differently. We use different planting techniques now. So there's really a lot going on in the Minnesota apple industry right now.

CATHY WURZER: Well, you did a good job explaining it, Charlie. We wish you well, by the way. Happy Spring.

CHARLIE JOHNSON: Yeah, well, Thank you very much for giving us a chance to promote our apples.

CATHY WURZER: You did a good job promoting it on your own, Charlie. Thank you. Charlie Johnson is the owner of Whistling Well Farm based in Hastings.

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