SugarBee apples head to stores

The new apple, SugarBee, is hitting selected markets in limited supply for the first time this month in holiday packaging. Chelan growers see it as a future money maker.

CHELAN, Wash. — SugarBee is a new apple variety said to be sweeter than Honeycrisp that in the month of December is being sold commercially for the first time.

Chelan Fresh Marketing is providing test marketing of first-year production to several Walmart stores across the nation, Safeway in northern California, Kroger and Whole Foods, said Mac Riggan, vice president of marketing at Chelan Fresh.

About 8,000, 40-pound boxes worth of SugarBee is being sold in holiday packaging and the goal is to eventually be selling whatever the market bears at a good profit, Riggan said.

“We’ve had head-to-head taste tests with Honeycrisp and it’s beaten it hands down. Honeycrisp has a tendency to go flat, lose its flavor in storage. SugarBee doesn’t do that,” said Harold Schell, director of field services of Chelan Fruit Cooperative.

The co-op and Gebbers Farms, of Brewster, acquired the exclusive rights to grow and sell the new apple from Regal Fruit International, a variety management affiliate of Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata.

Regal obtained propagation rights from patent-holder, apple breeder Chuck Nystrom, Worthington, Minn., who discovered the variety in the early 1990s from his experimental seed plantings.

The mother seed is Honeycrisp and the father is an unknown pollinator likely carried by a honeybee, Schell said.

The resulting mostly red but also yellow-skinned apple is high in sugar content. Hence the name SugarBee chosen by an ad agency for Chelan Fresh.

“The name describes the apple because its very crisp and crunchy and holds its firmness and flavor very well. It’s very sweet. A high level of brix (sugar), probably more so than Fuji or Honeycrisp,” Schell said.

Gebbers Farms and growers for Chelan Fruit have planted about 300 acres of SugarBee trees and the goal is 1,000 acres, Schell said.

It’s a club or managed variety, meaning Chelan Fresh, Chelan Fruit and Gebbers Farms will control volume and marketing to avoid overproduction and maintain good returns.

Test marketing is at $1.99 to $2.99 per pound, but Honeycrisp has proven people will pay as much as $7.99 per pound for quality, organic apples, Riggan said. That can equate to $160 per 40-pound box with the grower getting 50 percent or $80 per box, a very good return, he said.

“You have a darn good apple that eats well, that holds up well in storage so you have an extended marketing window and it’s exclusive,” Schell said. “It will add to growers’ bottom line because it won’t be overproduced.”

Chelan Fruit is testing other new varieties with Regal and Chelan Fresh is continuing to push forward with New Zealand’s Rockit, a cross between a crab apple and the rose apple series.

It’s bred to be small, but unlike most small apples is very tasty. They are sold three, four or five apples per colorful and transparent tube as a grab-and-go item from convenience and grocery stores.

Chelan Fresh imported about 3,000 boxes of Rockit in 2014 and now is growing and harvesting about 9,000 boxes worth in Washington.

“It doesn’t sell super easy because we’re asking some money for it,” Riggan said. “It’s $3.99 for a four-count or about $1 per apple.”

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