The Honeycrisp apple was born in Minnesota, but two Northern Michigan growers proved that our region is the variety’s Eden. This piece was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Read on for the entire article.
You wouldn’t peg Mark Evans as a gambler. I meet this unassuming man on a balmy, dry September afternoon. He is driving his father’s sun-faded, blue Ford 6600 tractor along a row of apple trees. He deftly hops down, offering a firm, tanned handshake. His dress code is decidedly business casual for a company executive—unbuttoned flannel shirt over a black tee, Levi’s jeans, waterproof work boots, and a camo-patterned Farm Bureau Credit Union ball cap pulled over salt-and-pepper hair. Mark is one of the two men who make up Evans Brothers Fruit Company, a fourth-generation family farm tucked in a bucolic Benzie County valley south of Frankfort. Mark and his brother Mike’s big gamble? In the early 1990s they planted an orchard of a little-known apple variety called Honeycrisp.
Today you would hardly call the Honeycrisp a gamble. Its distinctive crunch and texture combined with burst of sweetness makes it a favored apple at every farm market stand, specialty food store and grocery chain. Otherwise price-savvy shoppers fork over up to triple the cost of other varieties for this apple. And its red and yellow skin glows in comparison to its apple brethren.
It wasn’t always this way, according to Mark. It was a risk in 1993, when they became the first farm in Northern Michigan to plant it.
Mark recalls how he and Mike went to a local growers conference in Manistee in 1992, where an East Coast professor did a presentation about some new apple varieties, including the Honeycrisp from the University of Minnesota. A year later, on a trip to New Zealand, the brothers had an epiphany when they saw how the country’s consistently sunny climate generated a year-round bumper crop of produce—what if they could grow something that benefited from Northern Michigan’s unique climate? It was time to give that obscure apple variety from the University of Minnesota a try.
The Honeycrisp wasn’t a sure bet when it was first introduced. Even the University of Minnesota didn’t know what it had on its hands, allowing anyone to grow the fruit by paying just a small royalty, rather than holding the patent and carefully controlling the grower permission, like with the recent apple phenom the SweeTango®. The first problem with the Honeycrisp was the color. Customers expected their apples to look—well, like apples. Solid-colored apples like red delicious, golden delicious and ida red sold—not the bi-colored look of a Honeycrisp.
“Think about it—when you go into a grocery store, you can’t taste anything. You can only go by look,” Mike says. Mark remembers even harsher comments when they first showed their Honeycrisp apples. “People used to say, ‘Man, those are kind of ugly. I don’t think those will go anywhere.’ ”
But it wasn’t just the color that haunted the Honeycrisp—it was the skin. It’s such a sensitive apple that farmers had to be sure about their investment. “The Honeycrisp is the hardest apple to grow, pack and ship,” says Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, which markets Michigan apple growers. The Evans Brothers know this firsthand.
Harvesters of Evanses’ seven other apple varieties are paid by volume, but Honeycrisp apple pickers are paid by the hour. Rushing the job can damage the apple. And unlike other apple varieties that can be picked in one deft move, Honeycrisps require a multi-step picking process by hand pickers. I watched about a dozen patient laborers that day, painstakingly pulling ripened fruit from branches, swiftly snipping stems and gently placing apples into side satchels so they wouldn’t bruise—a process no machine could replicate.
So why grow it? After all, here is an apple that looks ugly (by 1990s industry standards) and is costly to pick. And as Mike explains, farmers take a significant financial risk with any new apple variety since it can take nearly $250,000 to plant an orchard than can produce 10,000 bushels. “It’s difficult to come up with a winner of an apple. If you’re not careful, you could jump into something that’s not very good.”
It comes back to climate, much like those farms the brothers remembered visiting in New Zealand. Mike says Northern Michigan from Oceana County north has always been good for growing bi-colored apples because of the sandy soil, warm days and cool fall nights. Smith concurs. “There is something about our climate that makes all of our apples—and the Honeycrisp in particular—better,” she says.
The Michigan Apple Commitee’s Diane Smith eats a lot of apples with her job, and she assures me she isn’t biased when she says that Michigan grows the best Honeycrisp. The Michigan Apple Committee has done numerous focus groups and taste testings, and the Michigan Honeycrisp comes out as the top-rated Honeycrisp apple. “Even in blind taste tests, they’re picking our apple.”
This is when I realize that Mark isn’t the type of risk-taker who rashly rushes into business decisions. He takes calculated risks and follows trends in order to push the business forward. The family started growing cherries on the farm 70 years ago (and to this day, they still grow more cherries than apples), then added processed apples until profit margins became so low that they shifted to fresh fruit—which led them to the Honeycrisp and SweeTango. They also planted grape vineyards eight years ago.
Not all of Mark’s bets pan out. A few years ago, he and his brother experimented in the gourmet food mail order business, akin to Harry & David. A paint-peeled sign by the road in front of their farm, Evans Brothers Gift Apples, is an artifact of the defunct business unit. But for Mark, that’s just part of the process and evolution as an apple farmer. In a twist of irony, the cold storage unit he purchased for housing the now-obsolete fruit gift baskets is now storing their latest bet—SweeTango apples that need a constant 30 degrees to stay tasty.
Video extra: Making the Perfect Caramel Apple
His 28-year-old nephew Mark, who recently graduated from Washington State University with a horticulture degree specializing in viticulture (grape cultivation), returned to Michigan to join his dad and uncle in the family business and try new ideas based on his training. He is experimenting with small-batch wine making in hopes that the farm could sell wine in the future. “It’s great to be here, but I’m also scared to death,” the younger Mark says. “You’re always investing in something that might not work. That’s why you have to do your homework.”
Whether or not the Honeycrisp stays in vogue, farm co-owner Mark isn’t concerned about it being a fad apple. For him, the meteoric rise in popularity of the Honeycrisp is about more than the varietal itself. It’s about what is possible in an industry that historically viewed the apple as a commodity product until now.
Diane Smith agrees. “The Honeycrisp elevated the profile of apples and the Michigan apple industry in general. It woke everyone up to see that while we love having Macintosh and Red and Gold Delicious, consumers are open to trying new things. It’s a juggernaut.”
The Honeycrisp is responsible for more apple consumption in general—and for consumers paying more for something that tastes better. “The Honeycrisp showed apple farmers what is possible,” Mark says.
It starts with growing a delicious piece of fruit. And you can bet that Mark is already thinking of what he’ll grow next.
The Next Big Thing
A new apple variety has cropped up at Michigan roadside stands and farm markets in recent years that may topple the Honeycrisp as the most sought-after apple variety. Mark and Mike Evans of Evans Brothers are betting on SweeTango as the next big thing in the apple industry—literally and figuratively.
Bursting onto the scene in 2009, the SweeTango is the Honeycrisp’s successful offspring—and as Mark Evans views it, yet another outstanding apple choice. “The great thing about apples is that most people enjoy more than one variety. Those who prize top-quality fruit will buy both SweeTango and Honeycrisp.”
The SweeTango is a cross between the Honeycrisp and Zestar! varieties (the Honeycrisp parent contributes the crunch), originating from the same source as the Honeycrisp—University of Minnesota. And its status as a “managed variety” is due to the unbridled success of the Honeycrisp.
University apple breeders learned from Honeycrisp’s stardom that it was time to manage the growth of its next runaway hit, so they created a growers cooperative, Next Big Thing (NBT). As the only SweeTango co-op in North America, the group has exclusive marketing rights of the apple, it hand-selects farmers to join, and it collects $10,000 upfront from each for the rights to grow and sell it (unlike the Honeycrisp and some other new strains where farmers paid small royalty fees to grow). Even then, co-op members don’t own the trees—they lease them from UMinn.
Evans Brothers is one of only five farms in Northern Michigan who are licensed members of the co-op. And when you taste the apple, which University of Minnesota describes as “a satisfying crunch and a juicy blast of sweet-tart flavor,” you can see why Mark and Mike Evans feel it’s worth the investment.
With SweeTango’s two-week jump on the Honeycrisp’s harvest season, apple lovers can enjoy a perfect eating apple while waiting for the Honeycrisp.
Planning an Apple Harvest Weekend
Take a spin around Northern Michigan on any given fall day, and it’s no surprise that apples are Michigan’s largest and most valuable fruit crop—with 900 apple farms and 37,000 acres of apples. Just how valuable is that? As the third-largest apple producer in the country, Michigan generates an estimated economic impact of $700 million annually from the fall fruit. We’ve culled a handful of ideas and stops for creating a perfect fall day celebrating one of Michigan’s most prized fruits. Throw in a tank of gas, a sweater and a picnic blanket—and enjoy.
Orchards, U-Pick Farms and Cider Mills
The Michigan Apple Committee has assembled an interactive map listing U-pick apple farms, farm markets and cider mills alphabetically by county. A few to try:
Friske Orchards, 11027 Doctor Road, Charlevoix, 231.599.2604, friske.com. These 300 acres include a U-pick apple farm and Friske’s Farm Market. The orchard also produces 50,000 gallons of Friske’s premium Apple Cider blends annually.
Kilcherman’s Christmas Cove Farm, 11573 N. Kilcherman Road., Northport, 231.386.5637, christmascovefarm.com. Four-generational farm with 250 apple varieties, most of which are historical or antique apples. Also sells fresh-pressed, unpasteurized cider that can contain up to 60 apple varieties.
Cideries (Hard Cider)
Left Foot Charley, 806 Red Dr. (in Grand Traverse Commons), Traverse City, 231.995.0500, leftfootcharley.com. Changing tap of hard ciders produced in small batches and served on draught at the winery, with flavors like Cinnamon Girl Hard Cider.
Northern Natural Cider & Winery, 324 East Front Street, Traverse City, 231.943.1078, northernnaturalwinery.com. Specializing in premium-quality organic hard ciders, with exotic flavors like Orange Blossom, Cranberry Ginger and Lavender Apple. Cider available for purchase in 12-oz. bottles, by the growler and by the glass.
Tandem Cellars, 2055 N. Setterbo Rd., Suttons Bay, 231.271.0050, tandemciders.com. Specializing in artisanal hard ciders featuring ciders with inventive names such as Cidre Royal, Honey Pie, Pretty Penny, Smackintosh and The Crabster.
Charlevoix Apple Fest, October 10–12, 2014. East Park, Charlevoix.
Friske’s Harvest Festival, September 27, 2014. Also Friske’s Applefest—Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, 2014.
Friske Orchard & Farm Market (10743 N. US31, Atwood/Ellsworth). friske.com/events/
Self-Guided Driving Tours
Northwest Michigan Route—Try one of three self-guided driving tours of apple farms and orchards in Northern Michigan—from a 100-mile route heading out of Traverse City north on US31 into Elk Rapids and returning clockwise, to a 30-mile route up Old Mission Peninsula, to a 114-mile route up M-22 on Leelanau Peninsula. To plan your trip click here.