Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a small village named Tölpelhaft in Germany that grew apples. The apples tasted very good and were sold throughout the nation. Every year they had an apple festival to celebrate. People came from all over Germany to attend.
One day Hermann Widemann, a salesman, came to the town. Hermann called a meeting of all of the apple farmers and told them that they were growing the wrong apples. He said his apple trees would produce more apples with less fertilizer. The farmers cheered and lined up to buy Hermann’s apple trees. A small boy in the audience, Heinrich Muller, put his hand up and asked Hermann, “How do your apples taste?” Hermann looked at Heinrich and said, “It doesn’t matter how they taste, if they look good everyone will think they are the best apples in the world.”
The farmers loved their new apples. Each year at the apple festival they held a contest to determine the best Widemann apples. The apples were judged based upon the “Widemann profile”. However, only the judges knew the characteristics of the Widemann profile. The judges were sworn to secrecy and were not allowed to share the characteristics of the Widemann profile or the contest scores. The farmers never knew how well their apples scored; they were only told that that they were a winner or they were a loser.
As the years passed, the Tölpelhaft farmers continued to believe that they had the best apples in the world. They rejected any criticism of their apples. The Farmers’ Association even adopted a resolution that Widemann apples were heritage apples and that growing any other apple variety was an insult to Tölpelhaft apple farmers.
One day, at a farmers meeting Heinrich Muller spoke up again. He said, “Eventually, quality is going to catch up with the price of apples and the buyers are going to go ‘Nein’ because there are better apples than Widemann.” He suggested that farmers needed to pay more attention to only selling high quality apples and not sell under ripe, overripe, wormy, buggy or rotten apples. One of the things he pointed out was that the neighboring town, Kuh, had improved their quality and that buyers were paying more for some Kuh apples than for Widemann apples. He told the farmers that for years buyers had treated all Tölpelhaft apples as a homogenous brand, but the market was changing and buyers now were differentiating apples based on the variety. He recounted how his high quality buyers were now demanding to know what varieties of apples he had available.
Heinrich pointed out that many Tölpelhaft farmers still treated their apples as if they were a commodity, while other apple growers, like Kuh, had recognized that there was also a marketplace for branded, specialty apples that commanded a premium price. He said; “If we want to survive we have to understand that commodity apples compete on price, but branded, specialty apples compete on quality. We have to stop thinking that we are competing against commodity apples and understand that we are competing against the top specialty apples in the world.”
Heinrich told the farmers that if they wanted to be successful they would have to change what they were doing. First, they needed to plant better varieties of apples. He said that on his farm he was growing eleven new apple varieties that he believed could compete against the top apples in the world. He said “Unless we start growing new varieties and improving planting, growing, picking, processing and storage we are going to fail.” Heinrich proposed a four point program for the farmers, who wanted to sell branded, high quality apples:
1. Only sell red-ripe apples. He said that his mill was paying a bonus of two marks per kilogram for lugs containing worm-free, red-ripe apples.
2. Plant apple varieties that compete with the best apples in the world.
3. Adopt farming techniques that improve quality.
4. Create a transparent apple contest that scores Tölpelhaft apples on a world-class apple standard.
Helga Schlauberger, a leader in the Farmers Association, stood up after Heinrich’s speech and said that Heinrich had never understood that Widemann apples were the best in the world. She said that she knew this was true because Widemann apples always won the Tölpelhaft Apple Festival Contest. She said it would be insulting for Tölpelhaft farmers to grow new apple varieties. She also said that there was no need to improve growing, picking or packing because it wasn’t necessary to be better than the best in the world. She told the farmers that they didn’t need to improve quality and that there was no need to worry, “Widemann apples have always been the best in the world and they will always be the best in the world.” The farmers clapped and cheered.
However, some of the Tölpelhaft farmers listened to Heinrich Muller. They began to plant new varieties and to sell only red-ripe, worm-free apples. Within a few years, just as Heinrich Muller predicted, they were selling branded specialty apples at premium prices.
At the same time, large distributors slowly stopped buying the bottom quality Widemann apples that they used for Tölpelhaft applesauce blend. The Widemann farmers begged the distributors to buy more of their apples. The distributors refused saying that they could make more money buying low quality Kuh apples. With the loss of the distributors, the market price for all Widemann apples began to slide. Finally, the price for Widemann apples fell below the cost of production. One by one, Tölpelhaft farmers cut down their Widemann trees.
Only Helga Schlauberger refused to give up. She set up a roadside stand with a sign, “Widemann heritage apples – the best in the world.” Tourists stopped their cars to ask her for directions, but no one bought her apples.
This fairy tale is a work of fiction. If you sense a similarity to persons, places or things you know, it is entirely a result of your own imagination. Karen Jue Paterson is the owner of Hula Daddy Kona Coffee, a 33 acre coffee farm in Kona, Hawaii. She is a member of the Hawaii Coffee Association, the Kona Coffee Council, the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, the Holualoa Village Association and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. She is also the author of a number of articles on Kona Coffee including: Kona Coffee Farmers at a Crossroad https://www.huladaddy.com/?p=696 How Typica is Your Kona Coffee? https://www.huladaddy.com/?p=710 and Are Roasters Eroding the Kona Coffee Brand?https://www.huladaddy.com/?p=952; Coffee Cupping Competitions – Real or Random Chance? https://www.huladaddy.com/?p=1670