What’s In An Apple Cultivar’s Name?

Jim McFersonWho knew the hardest part of an apple breeding program is finding a name for a new release? We have been led to believe it was all the years of field testing that force growers and tree fruit breeders to wait 15 to 20 years for delivery of a new cultivar. Genetic and genomic tools promise to cut a few years off that development time, but still leave us with a decade or more from the breeder’s initial cross. That is long time to realize a return on investment.

Understandably, growers funding various tree fruit breeding programs get impatient as hundreds of thousands of dollars seem to disappear into a labyrinthine process of testing and re-testing. Similarly, breeders grow old on the job, spending a career to produce only a handful of finished cultivars which may or may not have any impact in the marketplace.

Sometimes that handful can be worth the effort … if that cultivar is Honeycrisp! Jim Luby and David Bedford at the University of Minnesota can certainly be proud of their years of hard work to turn this selection from an interesting (and initially unsuccessful) new release into the breakthrough cultivar that it has become.

It has also become clear that delays in the availability of new cultivars in commercially relevant quantities can run into many years. Propagation problems and genetic identity mishaps are a constant challenge, with the potential to significantly delay access for growers, increase costs to propagators, and lead growers to question their risk to benefit ratios.

Risk Vs. Benefit
Despite such obstacles, a proliferation of new scion and rootstock cultivars in apple and cherry (with a slight trickle starting in pear) leaves tree fruit growers with more choices than ever. While that is an exciting opportunity on one hand, it also adds to the risk on that risk to benefit ratio.

Will the new cultivar perform well and merit the $20,000-plus per acre establishment costs? Will the packing shed figure out handling and storage issues? Will the marketing and sales folks get behind it? And, key to it all, will the consumer return for repeat sales? It took many years for those questions to be answered for Honeycrisp, but everyone in the supply chain is benefiting now.

A large number of Washington growers, 458 to be exact, applied to enter a lottery for the first access to Cosmic Crisp trees for 2017. (Photo credit: WSU CAHNRS Communications)
A large number of Washington growers, 458 to be exact, applied to enter a lottery for the first access to Cosmic Crisp trees for 2017. (Photo credit: WSU CAHNRS Communications)

Exciting Times Ahead
So is this really an exciting opportunity, or just one more vexation for a tree fruit grower? Few plant a single tree anymore without having done their homework on those questions, but sometimes there are not a lot of answers. Despite the best efforts of breeding programs, we lack solid data on horticultural performance and postharvest handling on most introductions. Market potential remains a big guess. The grower learns by doing, while bearing educational costs that make many student loans look like a desirable option.

The apple breeding program at the University of Minnesota led by Luby and Bedford, as well as the Cornell University program run by Susan Brown, have taken up this challenge. Their recent releases — SweeTango from Minnesota and RubyFrost and SnapDragon from Cornell — were tested well enough to provide growers a reasonable shot at making a wise decision and these exciting new cultivars are off to a good start.

WA38’s Turn
Similarly, the Washington State University (WSU) pome fruit breeding program, directed by Kate Evans, has worked very hard to obtain answers to those important grower questions. In addition, WSU has adopted a strong policy of providing growers in Washington State initial access to their products and partnered with my organization to conduct systematic and rigorous multi-year tests before pushing selections to commercialization.

Now, after nearly 20 years of investment, the WSU program is at that commercialization point for its latest release, but one more delay appeared — finding a name for the release, previously identified by its breeding program code, WA38. Thankfully, that process of many months is past and we now have a name: Cosmic Crisp. Grower interest is keen and a drawing was conducted in June to determine who will have first access to the limited number of finished trees available for 2016.

Willing To Take A Risk On Cosmic Crisp
Based on the 458 applications received, it is clear a significant number of Washington apple growers are willing to take an initial risk on this release. Based on the overwhelmingly positive evaluations of the cultivar’s horticultural performance and handling characteristics, the industry finally has an apple that grows and stores better than anything else out there. Based on consumer testing, in which it regularly surpassed Honeycrisp, Cosmic Crisp could provide another excellent choice at retail.

So why was it so difficult to find a name for a WSU release, given its obviously superior characteristics in Washington conditions and pull-through demand from the state’s apple growers? While I understand the claim that a catchy name is helpful whether you are selling apples, breakfast cereal, razors, or perfume, it eludes me why we can’t rely more on the creativity and competence of our U.S. apple breeding programs to develop and deliver new cultivars that do not need a clever name and marketing gloss to attract the consumer.

Honeycrisp should have proven to all skeptics that if a fruit product provides a superior consumer experience, it will sell itself, despite production and appearance challenges. Here’s hoping that is true for Cosmic Crisp. Based on the data, the risk to benefit ratio is quite favorable.

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