MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Few in agriculture understand the cyclical nature of farming better than Wisconsin’s apple growers, who suffered through two dismal years before finally breaking through with an outstanding season in 2014.
The state’s apple growers are optimistic that the cycle will keep climbing because of the introduction of an exciting new variety, called Pazazz, which is a hybrid of the immensely popular Honeycrisp and the addition of more tiny dwarf trees that produce a higher volume of apples per acre.
“It’s giving a reason and the means for the younger generation to go into this business,” said Andy Ferguson, 29, who co-owns Ferguson’s Orchards with his parents, Tom and Deb Ferguson, and is the president of the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association. Ferguson’s has orchards in Galesville, Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls.
Blessed with good weather in 2014, the value of the state’s utilized production of apples jumped 33.4 percent in one year to $31.2 million, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. That was the highest total over the past 10 years, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
State apple growers also produced a yield per acre of 13,500 pounds, which tied 2011’s crop for the highest over the past 10 years, NASS data showed. They also got 61.2 cents per pound, which was the highest in a non-drought year over the past 10 years.
Finally, the state’s total production of 54 million pounds of apples — a 12.5 percent jump from 2013 and a 128.9 percent jump from 2012 — was the best since 2008, according to NASS data.
“Last year was a very good year and this year is looking good, too,” said Vern Forest, who owns Eplegaarden Orchard in Fitchburg. “Our production has been going up over the past 20 years and our sales have continued to go up. I don’t know where the end is.”
Forest credits his most recent growth on his decision to plant 4,400 high-density trees that grow on a trellis system and produce more apples in much less space than the semi-dwarf trees that most everybody identifies as the mainstay of the Wisconsin orchard. Although one high-density tree produces about one-third the amount of apples as one semi-dwarf tree, more than 1,000 high-density trees can be planted over one acre compared to 180 semi-dwarf trees.
Orchards around the world have used high-density trees for decades, and they’ve existed in this country for just as long. But they’ve grown in popularity in Wisconsin in just the past decade, and Epelgaarden was at the forefront of the movement, Forest said.
Last year, Eplegaarden’s high-density trees that cover a mere four acres produced about 54 percent of his crop last year while the semi-dwarf trees covering 16 acres produced the other 46 percent, Forest said. He added that he expects that imbalance to increase as the youngest high-density trees that he planted three years ago start to maximize their production beginning later this summer.
In addition to the impressive volume of apples they produce, high-density trees also need less maintenance than semi-dwarf trees, they’re more environmentally friendly because they don’t require as much insect and disease control, and they’re easier for workers — and customers — to pick the apples.
Both organic and conventional apple growers are using high-density trees, said Anna Maenner, Wisconsin Apple Growers Association executive director. “Both see them as advantageous, and it has been a successful venture for them,” she said.
Forest said the high-density trees are more expensive to buy than semi-dwarf varieties, but they are most definitely worth it. He began his venture with high-density trees by planting 1,500 that produce Honeycrisp more than 10 years ago and has since added trees that produce Cortland, McIntosh, Haralson, Macoun, Jonathan, Northern Spy, Empire, Gala and others.
“The Honeycrisps have far-and-away paid for themselves, and we’ve taken the extra money to introduce different varieties of apples on those small trees,” Forest said.
The Pazazz is expected to give Honeycrisp a run for its money. It’s considered the perfect winter apple because it is harvested in late October and holds its flavor longer than most apples. So far, the apple has been grown mostly in New York, Nova Scotia, Washington and Minnesota and sold in test markets to rave reviews.
Ferguson, who became a co-owner after graduating from UW-Madison Law School in 2012, is so confident that the Pazazz will be a big hit that 40,000 high-density Pazazz-growing trees were planted last year at its Eau Claire orchard. That makes Ferguson’s the largest Pazazz grower in the Midwest.
“They are my single favorite apple. And I eat a lot of different apples,” Ferguson said.
The Pazazz, which was developed by Holmen apple grower Doug Shefelbine, has Honeycrisp’s famous crunch that helped elevate it to such a superstar level that growers still can’t produce enough of the variety to meet demand. But Pazazz’s unique sweet-but-tart flavor and bi-colored look will set it apart from the Honeycrisp, Ferguson added.
“The purpose of the Pazazz is not to compete with the Honeycrisp,” he said. “It supplements it and offers another strong alternative. We have apples that are actually good besides being good for you these days. They aren’t all bland like the Red Delicious.”
Ferguson is taking care of his investment, too. After several orchards in the Chippewa Falls area, including one owned by Ferguson’s family, were wiped out recently by a hail storm, Ferguson said he ordered hail netting to cover all of his orchard’s young Pazazz-producing trees. He added that the cost of the netting was about $8,000 an acre. “It’s worth it if you get hail,” Ferguson said.
Another new Honeycrisp hybrid developed by Shefelbine that has intense flavor — called the RiverBelle — also is expected to become a hit in the next few years, Maenner said. Unlike the Honeycrisp and Pazazz, however, the RiverBelle is an early season variety.
“National retailers are excited to get those apples,” Ferguson said. “I think consumers will love the apple, too, and that will be great for Wisconsin. Look at the grocery store shelves and there are new apples showing up all the time from all across the country and the world. Wisconsin needs to keep up.”
Eplegaarden’s Forest agrees. He started his orchard after retiring as an agriculture education professor with the UW-Extension in 1992 and has been at the cutting edge of the apple-growing business ever since. The ride has been bumpy at times but Forest said he has no regrets with his decision to become an apple grower.
“We’ve become a major producer, and we never expected that,” he said. “It has been a great ride.”