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Red Jacket Orchards refocuses on future after a couple tough years

A couple of “really rough years in the orchards” convinced Brian Nicholson and Red Jacket Orchards that it was time for another tweak of its business model.

In its 61st year of operation, the company said it will be intensifying focus on its rapidly expanding fruit beverage business and downsizing fruit-growing operations.

“We’ve got a very healthy, growing beverage business,” said Nicholson, who is Red Jacket’s president and CEO. “It’s really become the big part of the business. We have to head where we make money.”

As part of the restructuring, Red Jacket will reduce its 400-acre orchard operations by about half. Some may be sold, some leased, he said.

Nicholson said Red Jacket faced “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in expenses to upgrade its orchards with the newer apple varieties consumers are demanding.

“There’s a reduction of interest in the old favorites,” said Nicholson, such as the venerable McIntosh apple.

But moving to these new varieties comes at a steep price, he explained.

“It costs $10,000 to $15,000 per acre to put new orchards in,” said Nicholson, pointing to the trellis-style dwarf tree orchards that are gradually replacing traditional ones.

The new trees produce lots of apples, but they are expensive to plant, he said. Additionally, apple and other fruit orchards require significant labor that is not only getting scarcer, but could also get more expensive, said Nicholson, if the state approves overtime pay for farmworkers.

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