Rockit apples are the world’s first snack-sized apple; naturally developed in New Zealand and grown in Hawke’s Bay. All indications are there is nothing miniature about the apple’s profit potential.
The International Tree Fruit Association’s (IFTA) study tour in February featured stops at a Rockit apple orchard and its state-of-the-art packing facility – one that is likely to soon be replaced by a larger operation in order to meet soaring sales demands.
Originally developed in New Zealand, Rockit apples – about a third of the size of a regular fruit, and still boasting Brix of up to 20 – are now grown and distributed worldwide. Rockit’s average fruit weight is 88 grams, and a bin holds 2.5 times the amount of fruit as a bin of conventional apples.
“We have big ambitions, and a lot going on over the next few years,” said Chris Hurrey, operations manager for Rockit Global Ltd.
Hurrey met with IFTA attendees along with sector manager Ben James and business development manager Mark Pay.
The snack market product originated from a cross of Gala and Splendor that was developed by Plant and Food Research New Zealand.
Production has grown 40 percent each year, according to Hurrey. In the works are plantings of another 80 hectares each of the next three years by the company. New Zealand private growers will plant another 50 hectares. Its anticipated production will climb to 60 million tubes.
In 2017, the company packed nearly 7,000 400-kilogram bins and expects to exceed 9,000 bins this year.
A large emphasis is placed on the Asian markets, where consumers favor the handy snack packaging, and sales are soaring.
Growers find interest in the apple due largely to the dynamics of the snack market, for which a niche has been created in the area of alternative choices.
Instead of going head-to-head with conventional apple growers, “we compete against the snack market, and that excites me,” Hurrey said. “We’re doing something different and giving people another alternative to snacks. That’s what Rockit is.”
The majority of Rockit apples in New Zealand are grown in Hawke’s Bay, near Napier, with another grower located in Bay of Plenty. The Hawke’s Bay packing house handles all of the New Zealand crop, but that unit is nearing capacity after just four years in operation.
Growers find a way
The apple can require a big investment to grow, according to United Kingdom grower David Figgis, who said on the company’s website “everything about it is more than normal apples – nutrition, thinning, picking, packing – so it needs the premium it deserves.”
Brydon Nisbet, along with his wife Sharon, is one of the Rockit growers in New Zealand, located in Hawke’s Bay.
“In 2011, my wife and I were at the New Zealand Horticultural Annual conference in Rotorua,” Nisbet said. “One of the conference speakers was Phil Alison talking about Rockit Apples. he shared about the taste, sweetness, crispness and the innovative way of packaging these miniature apples into sealed tubes – perfect and ready for the international snack market.
“On each table were about a dozen tubes of these miniature apples – as we left the session we scooped up about six tubes and took them back home to the kids in Hawke’s Bay – they were an instant hit not only with the kids but also with us,” Nisbet said. “Two years later, in 2013, my wife and I leased a 20-acre pipfruit orchard, we cut down all the apple trees to stumps and grafted Rockit apple on to them – we are expecting our fourth crop in March 2018.
“Like all apple trees, Rockit trees need to be well cared for,” Nisbet said. “One advantage Rockit trees have is that they produce a lot of fruit and because the fruit is miniature in size the trees can hold a good crop – even in the first couple of years of growth. The ongoing challenge will be to make sure the crop load on the tree is comparable to the tree size – it is important that we get as much uniform size as possible.”
The company has 19 producing orchards, about 160 hectares managed by Rockit Management Services, with five in development and another five in initial stages of development.
Company representatives said the firm will plant 80 hectares over each of the next three years, with private growers running another 50 hectares in New Zealand alone.
Hurrey discussed the production of a third-leaf block generating 25 tons per hectare and 150 to 250 fruit per tree.
He said there is aw learning curve for pickers who must adjust to the different bin load capacity for the miniature apples compared to conventional fruit.
In fact, he said, workers can make more when picking the smaller fruit that requires 54 buckets to fill a bin.
As might be anticipated, “it can be a bit daunting when you put that first bucket in the bin” and the picker realizes how many more it will take to accomplish the task
Most workers would rather pick 2.5 bins of Rockit a day, at $80 a bin, rather than pick five or six bins of conventional apples at around $35 a bin, he said.
“I’ve grown a lot of varieties and been in this industry a long time, and I’ve never grown a variety with such high standards – and we have to, because it’s such a premium piece of fruit,” Hurrey said in stressing the importance of the fruit’s size and color requirements that are subject to rigorous field testing.
Hurrey told IFTA tour participants the potential for stem puncturing and bruising in the harvest process requires workers to be disciplined in their picking approach. They are required to pick one fruit per hand to assure quality, regardless of fruit size.
Some russeting can take place around the Rockit’s stem, and the hottest temperatures on record this past growing season led to some sunburn issues.
Pollination is achieved with Granny Smith plantings, or possibly crabapple varieties are pursued to spur early flower activity.
“We like to play it safe with the fruit,” he said. “We have to get the tonnage right because the fruit is so small,” he said.
With yield targets set at 66 metric tons per hectare, the fruit’s value as low as 55 tons leads to “fantastic money” due to the price Rockit generates, Hurrey said.
Packing house busy
Rockit Global Limited Postharvest manager Andrew Mason led a tour of the packing house about one week prior to starting operations. He noted that as many as 9,000 bins “doesn’t sound like very much, but when there are 5,000-plus apples in a bin, and you’re putting every single one into a tube by hand, it’s quite labor intensive.”
Mason said 70 workers on one eight-hour shift can pack 55 to 60 bins or about 60,000 tubes. A daily nine-hour shift was normal last year, but the extra volume led this year to the run of 15-hour days, with nine-hour and six-hour shifts.
A three-lane Compaq sorter includes blemish-sorting technology. Cameras help to sort the fruit by diameter. Fruit is packed into and sold in plastic tubes, ranging from three, four and five pieces per tube. Five tube sizes range from 53 millimeters (just over a couple of inches) to 72 millimeters. Only one color grade, premium, gets packed.
The compressed harvest season of five or six weeks still allows fruit to be packed over six months.
“There’s not too many apple growers out there who do 100 percent of their harvest over five weeks. Most are a bit smarter and have multiple varieties,” said Mark Pay, business development manager.
Pay said sales agreements are locked in and a marketing program with retailers enables prices to be held for the entire season – similar to other snack products.
“Where there might have been fluctuations in price, we’d rather give 10 cents, 20 cents, 30 cents to promotion,” he said. “It’s a really different way of thinking about it.”
China, Singapore and Vietnam are among the larger markets. Disney also is buying the fruit for sale at its amusement parks.
The attraction of the snack fruit for consumers who put an emphasis on health benefits puts it in a prime spot for unconventional retail opportunities, Pay said. Rockit apples are sold in cafes hospitals, airports, sports stadiums and school campuses – places where 100 percent natural foods are not available.
“We’re moving apples away from just being a commodity, where you’re just fighting on price in the supermarket, and taking it to places where apples aren’t generally sold – gas stations, theme parks, cruise liners, airports, stadiums, vending machines,” he said. “We’re not smart enough to compete with every other apple out there. So, we’ll just do something else. It makes life a lot easier.”
What’s with the plastic?
Mark Pay, business development manager for Rockit Apple, not only has an entrepreneurial last name, he has a big selling job ahead of him when it comes to marketing the company’s recyclable plastic tubes.
The packaging has found favor in many Asian markets that are accustomed to widespread recycling of plastic waste, but has been met with disfavor in some places, including the United States – and even among environmentally sensitive audiences like those found in the product’s native New Zealand.
It’s led to company discussions about altering packaging in areas where environmental concerns are more challenging to overcome.
We’ve had several questions asking why we sell Rockit apples in recyclable plastic tubes,” Pay said. “In New Zealand, we’re lucky that we haven’t had many significant food safety or security issues. We tend to buy loose apples stacked up at the supermarket. We put them in a plastic bag, take them home (some of us wash them) and either cut them up or eat them whole. Most of us don’t buy fruit at the dairy, at the service station, at the sports park, at work or at the zoo. But why not?”
With Rockit apples “we’re making clean, fresh, 100 percent natural, healthy apples available as an on-the-go snack food,” Pay said. “We’re hoping that consumers will choose Rockit apples instead of processed snacks and we’re working to place Rockit apples where natural food is usually not readily available.”
Pay said the apple’s tube keeps the fruit clean (no unknown grubby hands or germs), fresh and it’s portable. It’s good for in the car, after school, at work or in the sports bag.
“It makes it easy for retailers to make 100 percent natural, locally grown fruit available alongside packaged snacks,” Pay said
“We’re actively working to come up with new ways to package Rockit apples,” Pay said.
This includes a fully compostable cardboard tube which is currently being tested to meet food safety, global exporting and durability standards.