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The question that always tugs at the wallet when autumn hits: Do you go for the cheaper apples, the Granny Smiths and McIntoshes that might mush, rather than crunch, when you bite into them? Or do you pay a premium—sometimes more than four times as much—for the bright-pink Honeycrisps? (Maybe it depends whether they're intended for pie.)
Twenty-five years ago, you wouldn't have even had a choice. It wasn't until 1991—thirty-one years after the original cross in 1960—that the Honeycrisp was released commercially and became, in the words of John Seabrook in the New Yorker, "the humble Minnesota apple that made it onto the national, and then the international, stage."
Honeycrisps are, in my mind, a justifiable apple phenomenon: They're snappy; they're sweet; they're sturdy enough to swipe up peanut butter; they're juicy to the point where you can practically feel the moisture droplets squirting from the cells (which, when viewed under an electron microscope, are actually two times the size of those of other apples, explaining their distinct texture)—and they're expensive.
It's a simple matter of supply and demand, says David Bedford, the scientist who invented the Honeycrisp at the University of Minnesota, where growers cross-pollinated different tree varietals to create new genetic combinations that would be winter-hardy producers of high-quality fruit.
An Esquire article explains that after almost two decades of slow growth, interest in Honeycrisps has taken off, but production can't keep up, as it takes five to six years from the time a tree is planted for it to produce enough fruit for commercial purposes.
And those trees—and the fruit that comes from them—are high-maintenance, or as a New York Times article called "Beyond the Honeycrisp Apple" put it: "maddeningly difficult to grow."
Not only must the soil conditions be just right (according to Beford, high-quality apples come from trees grown in specific regions like Minnesota, Michigan, and upstate New York) and the relatively weak trees trellised, but the fruit itself is thin-skinned, and its stem must be hand-cut from the tree. It ripens at various rates, which necessitates multiple pickings per season, and the blossom clusters must be thinned in the spring, as larger apples come from clusters with fewer blossoms.
Up until 2008, the University of Minnesota held a patent on the tree—it had farmers paying about $1.30 on each tree sold, earning the university, when combined with international sales rights, more than ten million dollars in royalties, reported John Seabrook. That made the Honeycrisp "the third-most-valuable invention ever produced there after Ziagen, a drug used to treat H.I.V., and a vaccine that prevents P.R.R.S., a reproductive and respiratory virus in pigs."
But the patent's expiration was not expected to change the number of trees in the ground, according to Fruit Growers News: Demand is so high that growers hadn't been taking the extra costs of the patented variety into account anyway.
So it's a perfect storm for high prices: There aren't very many trees around, those that do exist are expensive to care for, and lots of people want to buy the apples because they taste good.
In 2013, Bedford told Esquire that he does expect the price of Honeycrisps to come down as it's planted in more areas of the U.S. as well as New Zealand and Chile. But as price drops, so might quality: Because farmers will be incentivized to grow the apple in less-than-ideal conditions because it fetches such a high price, this might lead to fruit "no longer universally on par with today's standards."
Not to worry—when Honeycrisps lose their special something, there are other apple varietals to rebound with: the Ambrosia, the Jazz, the SnapDragon, and the SweeTango, the Opal, the Pacific Rose, and the yet-to-be-released Cosmic Crisp, for example, are all vying to be the next money-making it-apple.
I'm still feeling a little sorry for the Red Delicious.