Skip to main content

Grading and Sorting Apples for Direct-to-Customer Sales

Author: Annie Klodd, Extension Educator - Fruit and Vegetable Production. 
Reviewed by BJ Haun, UMN Technology Commercialization Office, Jim Luby and David Bedford, UMN Fruit Breeding Program.

Once fruit is harvested, apple growers should sort the fruit by several quality traits before putting it on the shelf. Some varieties, like First Kiss® and SweeTango®, must meet certain parameters before being sold by those names. This article offers tips about how to sort Minnesota apples based on marketability qualities.
Zestar! apples ready for harvest on Aug. 31, 2020. Photo: Annie Klodd.

In contrast to orchards selling apples via wholesale channels, growers selling direct-to-consumer have much more liberty when it comes to sorting and marketing their apples. Apples slated for wholesale must follow guidelines set by the buyer, which typically follow USDA grading standards

Managed varieties: Those licensed to grow club varieties including First Kiss® and SweeTango® have agreed to follow specific sets of quality standards regardless of where or how they're being sold. If the fruit do not meet the quality standards, they should not be sold as First Kiss® or SweeTango®, even at farmers' markets or on-farm. If poor quality fruit is sold under the SweeTango or First Kiss names, not only are you violating the terms of your license agreement, but you risk degrading the reputation of the brand and ultimately reducing your ability to receive a premium price for your apples.

Even if the customers are allowed to select their own apples from large bins, all the apples in the bin should meet the club variety standards in order for them to be sold under the name. For questions on First Kiss® licensing, contact UMN's Technology Commercialization Office. For questions on SweeTango® licensing, contact Pepin Heights Orchard. See this article for more information.

Non-club varieties: Minnesota growers selling direct-to-consumer and growing varieties other than First Kiss® and SweeTango® are allowed to decide the quality standards by which they will sort and sell their fruit. However, please remember that selling under-ripe or blemished fruit for premium prices can impact the grower's reputation and the customer's perception of the variety. For example, selling a tart, under-ripe Honeycrisp at full price may make a customer wonder "what's the fuss?" about this variety and not buy it again. 

When sorting fruit for on-farm or farmers' market sales, growers usually elect to sell their highest quality fruit for higher prices, and blemished, discolored, small but still usable fruit for lower prices. Suggested traits to sort by are size, % red coloring, and presence or absence of blemishes (i.e. split skin, insect damage, sunburn, webbed russetting). Of course, variety is also considered in the price, with premium varieties often selling for more than older, lower-demand varieties. 

Growers often generically use the term "first grade" to label their top quality fruit, while the still-edible apples with slight issues are referred to as "second grade" or "seconds" (however, these are not official terms). Diseased, scabbed, or split fruit should be culled or sold for cider, depending on the type and extent of the damage. 

Factoring in skin color: Quality standards for both SweeTango® and First Kiss® include % red skin color. The photo below shows three SweeTango® apples with varying levels of red skin coloring. Percent red skin color can be another factor to consider when sorting. The photos under "Coloring," below, show apples with 80%+, 50-70%, and less than 50% red. Generally, a green background color indicates that the apple is not ripe. Consider sorting out fruit that are clearly under-ripe rather than including them in the first grade baskets/bags, as under-ripe apples have a significantly different taste and mouth-feel than ripe apples.

Fruit size

Sorting by fruit size can be useful, especially if marketing fruit for school groups that accept or even prefer smaller apples. 
SweeTango® apples rated Small (less than 2.5 inches diameter), Medium (2.5-2.75 inches), and Large (over 3 inches) (left to right). Marker for size comparison. Photo: Annie Klodd


The amount of coloring considered ideal is highly dependent on the variety, but they should have a yellow background color, not green. 
SweeTango® apples with 80% or more red coloring. Photo: Annie Klodd

SweeTango® apple with 50-70% red coloring. Photo: AK

SweeTango® apple with less than 50% red coloring. Photo: Annie Klodd

Damage and Blemishes

Many types of damage can occur on apples, from insect damage to mechanical injuries like "tractor blight." Open wounds make apples unmarketable, as they cannot store well and depending on the cause of the damage, may not be safe to consume.
SweeTango® apple with split skin, which will eventually lead to more decay on the fruit. This fruit can be culled or used immediately for hard cider. It will not store. Photo: AK
SweeTango® with slight external spotting (left) and webbed russetting (right). These reduce the overall quality of the fruit due to visual abnormalities but can still be sold for fresh-eating. Photo: Annie Klodd

Print Friendly and PDF