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Apple Growers Add Sweeter Fruit to Jolt Sales

ST. PAUL, Minn. ( TheStreet) - Food companies like Kraft Foods (KFT) and General Mills (GIS - Get Report) are always hunting for new ways to tempt the palates of fickle Americans. Local apple growers face the same challenge.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting a massive apple crop of 241 million boxes (the 37- to 40-pound unit of measure formerly known as bushels). That's up from 233 million last year and the 229 million average for the past five years, but it means little if consumers won't buy or eat them.

High volume and competition from China have contributed to a 34% drop in apple prices during the past year, according to the USDA. Apples had the second-biggest decline among major fruits and vegetables produced in the U.S., behind lettuce's 46% decrease.

Growers are trying to jolt sales by branching out from their top sellers, Red and Golden Delicious. Those breeds comprise 36% of the industry's harvest, down from 60% in 1996. Instead, producers have been introducing sweeter varieties with catchier names.

"Consumers have moved away from their dependence on the Red Delicious in the grocer's aisle and into more sweet Empire or a tart McIntosh or Cortland," says Mark Nicholson of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, N.Y. His 51-year-old farm has boosted sales by supplying apple juice to Whole Foods Market (WFMI).

James Luby, director of the fruit breeding program at the University of Minnesota, has been playing matchmaker for apple varieties since 1982 and was part of the team behind the popular Honeycrisp varietal. Sometimes his cross-pollination produces hits like this year's SweeTango, which took 15 years to develop. Sometimes it creates a flavor more akin to gasoline.

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