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Visionaries to the Core

The more time I spend in the industry, the more convinced I am that those in produce are cut from a different cloth, or in this specific instance, a different tree—probably even grown in a different orchard altogether. How else would we have a group of people so passionate, so persistent, so prosperous at innovating categories that have been around for thousands of years?

This idea first came to me after listening to Rena Montedoro and Joel Crist tell the story of Crunch Time Apple Growers. As I sat down to listen, I wasn’t expecting to take a back seat in my own interview. But as Rena and Joel drove me through their past milestones, present strategies, and future goals, the view in front of us was clear: The grower-owned and operated collective wouldn’t be where it is today without its team of trailblazers propelling it forward every step of the way.

Crunch Time Apple Growers is more than just a grower-owned and operated collective—it's a team of trailblazers, visionaries, and thought-leaders constantly fulfilling the apple category's potential via innovation, sustainability, and more...

“Our innovation isn’t just in applying the latest technology in our orchards. It’s the ideas and vision of our next generation of apple growers,” Rena, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, emphasizes to me. “Our company is made up of thought-leaders from across the state of New York—all with unique perspectives, insights, and experiences that strengthen all aspects of our operation.”

It was one thought-leader—to steal Rena’s term—in particular who jumpstarted the formation of Crunch Time Apple Growers back in 2007.

“Dr. Susan Brown, a notable apple breeder at Cornell University, had a vision to develop apples that consumers would love to eat as much as farmers would love to grow—apples that would pack and look better and last longer on grocery aisle shelves,” Rena explains.

"Our innovation isn’t just in applying the latest technology in our orchards. It’s the ideas and vision of our next generation of apple growers."

-Rena Montedoro, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Crunch Time Apple Growers

This vision led to the creation of the SnapDragon® and RubyFrost® varieties. Once Walt Blackler, Roger Lamont, Mason Forrence, Jeff Crist, and Bob Norris tried the apples for themselves, the group quickly formed Crunch Time Apple Growers, securing the license to solely market SnapDragon and RubyFrost. In 2014, RubyFrost officially hit the market, followed by SnapDragon a year later—both with limited volume. Four years later, however, volume and sales for both varieties have tripled.

“We have been growing SnapDragon and RubyFrost since the very beginning of their development,” adds Joel, Chairman of Crunch Time’s Board of Directors and a grower with Crist Brothers Orchards. “We knew they would be vital to New York’s apple industry and keep us relevant in bringing forward the highest quality fruit. Today, it’s surprising to find someone who doesn’t list SnapDragon and RubyFrost as two of their top favorite apple varieties.”

Fresh picked apples from Crist Brothers Orchards

When attributing this success, though, there is no beating around the bush or wondering what came first, the apple or the seed. For Crunch Time Apple Growers, the seed came first, planted by those early thought-leaders who had the drive, passion, and vision to shake up the apple category.

“One of the things that makes Crunch Time Apple Growers and its apple production so unique is its leadership. We are grower-owned and operated and made up of highly respected industry leaders,” Rena notes. “The majority of our members are family farms—some going back six or seven generations to the very beginning of apple farming in the state of New York—representing close to 60 percent of all apple production in New York.”

Today, that little seed—first planted by those early thought-leaders—has grown into a mighty tree, each of its branches represented by a member of Crunch Time’s Board of Directors. Over time, the likes of Joel, Henry Forrence, Bob Norris, Austin Fowler, Jim Bittner, Warren Abbott, Walt Blackler, Brett Kast, and Mark Russell have helped Crunch Time withstand the challenges of each season and bear fruit every fall. It is for this reason that Rena highlights these people as a testament to why Crunch Time’s biggest strength is its team.

"Our growers are committed to sustainability, stewarding our land, and protecting our farms for future generations."

- Joel Crist, Chairman, Crunch Time Apple Growers and Grower, Crist Brothers Orchards

To take the tree metaphor one step further, I would describe Joel’s figurative branch of the mighty Crunch Time tree as a newer sproutling—and one growing straight toward the sun at that. As the youngest Board member (today he is 31 years old but first joined the Board at the age of 29), Joel represents the next generation of Crunch Time leaders and sets an example for what the future holds for New York apple growers.

“Joel has been a champion of SnapDragon and RubyFrost in New York State, as he sees the varieties not only helping farmers grow a better apple, but ensure we remain competitive,” Rena explains. “He is involved in every aspect of Crist Brothers—from planting in the spring to running the pack line in the fall—and as a result, offers tremendous insight to the industry. He is extremely progressive in his marketing approach, understanding that appealing to the consumer will drive sales and build a loyal fan base.”

Jeff and Jenny Crist of Crist Brothers Orchards

The way Joel tells it, though, is much simpler. In fact, when faced with a few pointed questions I lob his way to confirm Rena’s account, Joel grounds me in the joy he finds as an apple grower. And, the more he explains, the more his dedication to the success of Crunch Time Apple Growers and its two staple varieties becomes as palpable in the room as an apple ripe for the picking.

“What’s most interesting about being a part of the industry is witnessing the pace at which new varieties are taking hold, while some traditional varieties are dropping out or losing traction among apple lovers,” Joel reveals. “We are proud that the experience of eating a SnapDragon or RubyFrost is just so phenomenal that it’s hard to go back to anything else. We want to keep it that way for years to come.”

And, speaking of the future, Joel turns my attention to the collective’s sustainability efforts. He describes apples as a perennial crop, which means it is vital that Crunch Time makes sure its land is taken care of and has enough energy to produce a new crop the following year. This is just one of the many reasons why the collective is so heavily invested in implementing the most sustainable practices available.

Four generations of Kast Farms

“Our growers are committed to sustainability, stewarding our land, and protecting our farms for future generations. We recognize that what we do today will impact crop quality now and into the future,” Joel says. “We also want to preserve the legacy of family farming for future generations by employing innovative technology from the orchard to the pack line. We are equally committed to using only the most sustainable and responsible growing methods to ensure the best product possible reaches the hands of the consumer.”

Bob Norris, Board member, adds, “No one cares more about the land than we do. We choose growing practices that create high-quality apples while supporting our land, employees, and consumers.”

Thus, initiatives such as water and soil conservation, well-balanced ecological pest management systems, and integrated nature preserves are all part of Crunch Time’s sustainability and stewardship efforts—which the company also enacts thanks to a little help from its shipper and packer friends, like New York Apple Sales, Fowlers Fruit Farms, United Apple Sales, Niagara Fresh, Hess Bros., Apple Acres, and Hudson River Fruit.

SnapDragon is taking the managed variety into a whole new category“We have a terrific advantage in working with our shippers. They are the best in the industry and provide a wide geographical reach that allows us to get more apples to more consumers across the country and overseas. In addition, each shipper is bringing their sales expertise to the table. It is a huge benefit to Crunch Time Apple Growers to have this type of talent representing our brands,” Rena adds, before concluding: “The members that make up Crunch Time Apple Growers bring a wide variety of experience, vision, and dedication to the industry. And it is these very members who will keep New York apple growers in the race for decades to come.”

While my time with Crunch Time Apple Growers has drawn to a close, I leave our conversation with a crisper image of that metaphorical tree. I don’t know where it’s growing, but with budding branches like Rena and Joel, there’s no doubt it won’t be anywhere but up.