An apple a day is a pretty broad directive, but one new variety has a target audience: The school lunchbox crowd.
The crisp Opal apple, a cross between a Golden Delicious and a Topaz, is crunchy, mild, and sweet enough for anyone. But its particular appeal to kids — or to anyone turned off by discolored fruit — is that it’s unusually slow to brown after it’s cut. An apple sliced for brown bag lunches tends to stay clean and attractive without adding lemon juice or other traditional anti-browning agents. (In my week of informal home tests, a leftover slice still looked pretty good when my kid brought home forgotten leftovers 24 hours later, but I wouldn’t recommend going that far.)
The Opals were developed in Europe in 1999 and are grown in the U.S. by Yakima-based Broetje Orchards. Its FirstFruits Marketing holds the North American rights to market and distribute the organic apple, which is available locally at some locations of Costco, Haggen markets, Safeway and WalMart. (The Opal follows the past of most new modern varieties — trademarked fruits that are closely managed by a limited number of growers and distributors.)
Company board chairman Roger Bairstow liked that the cut apple was slow to oxidize, but also liked almost everything else about the Opal when he accepted the invitation to work with the nursery that developed the fruit.
“Even if it’s a nice tasting apple and it looks beautiful, you don’t know if it’s a commercially viable apple until you put it in the ground: Does it reach the right size, does it color really well, what time of the harvest period in the fall does it fall? There are a whole bunch of different questions that are unanswered once you find that good-tasting variety,” he said.
“We have maybe 20-30 people in our office and the same numbers in the orchard to do the taste testing for the apples that might make the palate sing a bit, and Opal always rose to the top,” he said.
“It’s just amazing to me… it’s an apple that just stays good for so long.”
Logistics govern the growing decisions as well. Agriculture is a labor-intensive business and “desperately short of labor.” Broetje’s fields are still mainly planted with Granny Smith and Red Delicious trees, so finding an apple that matured later than those, in October, was “a great time for us” both in terms of harvesting and marketing. New varieties are never sure bets in a market full of old supermarket favorites and farmers market heirlooms (I’m partial to Belle de Boskoops) and other new crosses, but the Opal has been selling out since he began testing it in 2010. It should be available on market shelves through the end of March, or a bit longer if supplies last.
About 200 acres of Broetje’s 6,000 acres are planted in Opals now — a teensy slice of the market compared with giants like the Honeycrisp, but enough for him to consider it a success in more ways than one. FirstFruits donates a regular percentage of its profits to non-profit charities benefiting the underserved, and has created a fund specifically around Opal sales, dedicating $50,000 for grants to non-profit “youth-based initiatives” nationwide that focus on food security, nutrition, agriculture, food politics and education. The public can vote on finalists for the grants, which will be posted here on April 29. One of last year’s grants went to Katie’s Krops, community gardens that provide food to local soup kitchens in 24 states. There’s one in Gig Harbor.
That, to Bairstow, gives the Opal added sparkle.
“We sell apples and make a profit and give about half that profit away,” he explained. “But we’ve never had an apple that allows ourselves to market and create a whole social responsibility plan, specifically on just it.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed quotes to company president Ralph Broetje.