EASTERN WASHINGTON — For a company that took 21 years to release its first product to consumers, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. is moving rapidly with expansion plans.
The biotech company’s genetically modified non-browning Arctic Golden apple slices were available in about 400 midwestern grocery stores a year ago, followed by Arctic ApBitz dried apple snacks this March, exclusively through Amazon.
In an Oct. 1-3 educational trip sponsored by Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), the company invited 10 trade media, bloggers and dietitians to hear about the company’s plans to expand, as well as educate consumers on the process to turn off the enzyme that causes fruit to brown.
Company co-founder and president Neal Carter and other OSF employees led the group through education sessions and orchard and nursery tours. Attendees agreed to withhold the location of the acreage due to security concerns from activists, but OSF was candid in its bold plans for expansion.
Those plans include:
- Adding fresh-cut Arctic Grannys to retail availability, and releasing golden and granny smith ApBits to retailers (whole apples in both varieties will be in 2-pound bags);
- Expanding production — OSF is harvesting on 60 acres this season and plans to have 180 acres in production next year and 560 in 2020;
- Expanding planted acreage — there are about 600 acres of Arctic variety trees, with another 800 planned for next year;
- Opening the first phase of a massive facility in Royal City by the end of 2019. The 100,000-square-foot initial phase will grow to about 1 million square feet by the mid-2020s, with pre-grading lines, slicing lines, dehydration equipment for ApBitz and lines for packing whole, fresh Arctics;
- More varieties — The company has received approval to grow non-browning fujis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (waiting on Food and Drug Administration’s OK) and is working on gala approval; and
- Licensing growers in other areas, including the Southern Hemisphere. OSF is working with authorities and a potential growing partner in Argentina.
Carter said the company is focusing on retail products, with attention to a size optimized for slicing equipment. As production ramps up, foodservice sales will focus on high-end operators, positioning the sliced apples as a premium product.
The “sliced-first” policy affects how many whole Arctics will be available each season. Apples that are too small or large for slicing equipment will be sold as whole fruit or used for the dried ApBitz.
“It’s all part of our commitment to sustainability and reducing food waste, along with offering consumers more healthy snacking options,” said Denise Everett, communications specialist with OSF.
“Apple consumption, per-capita, has been declining for the last 25 years,” he said. “We need to do something different in the apple business, and to make apples more convenient.
“Enzymatic browning is always an issue,” Carter said. “… We thought if we could turn off that enzyme, it could change the whole business.”
Jennifer Armen, OSF vice president, said the applications of the technology are numerous, and not just limited to apples. But in that category, she sees fresh-cut apples in baking kits. She uses the analogy of fresh-cut carrot products, from crinkle-cut, to coins and shredded cuts.
“We actually envision that Arctic apples can lend themselves to the same diversity in the apple space,” Armen said. “… I can’t wait til we have the supply to bring to the market in the fall a grab-and-go apple crisp (baking kit).”