Apple Variety Selection Tougher Than Ever for Growers

Young apple tree planting

Delaware-grown, second-year apple nursery trees budded in August 2019 and ready to be harvested for delivery to growers for the spring 2021 planting.
Photo courtesy of Adams County Nursery

Growing apples in the Eastern U.S. isn’t quite the same as it is in Washington, which is reflected by the nurseries serving those growers. A couple of those nurserymen, Phil Baugher of Adams County Nursery, Inc., Aspers, PA, and Matthew Schuld of Summit Tree Sales, Paw Paw, MI, recently answered a few questions from American Fruit Grower.

WHAT ARE THE MOST PRESSING NEEDS GROWERS HAVE IN REGARD TO VARIETY SELECTION AS WE HEAD INTO 2021?

Baugher: Variety selection is and will continue to be one of the many challenges growers face in managing an orchard operation. Growers need to base variety selection on their target market. On the East Coast, there are many growers who market direct to the consumer with direct contact with the customer. It is a very different market than selling to the large supermarkets.

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Schuld: For apple growers on the wholesale side of the industry, choosing a variety has become significantly more challenging in the last 10 years. With the expansion of managed varieties and the introduction of many new open release varieties, growers have lots of options but no strong indicators as to what variety will be profitable. The initial costs of high-density plantings make choosing a variety a gamble, since growers need new plantings to be profitable as soon as possible.

Retailers are telling growers there are too many apple varieties and not enough shelf space. At the same time, growers are hearing from retailers and industry leaders that it is time to push out older varieties that are no longer popular with consumers.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer on picking a variety for new planting. Growers may want to spread risk by choosing varieties that always have shelf space while at the same time taking a moderate risk on planting newer varieties. Some other thoughts to consider when choosing new varieties:

• When possible, select an improved strain with better color, storage ability, or early harvest timing.

• Select new varieties that fill a needed harvest window.

• Prepare for challenges. With many new varieties, the growing habits and disease susceptibility are not fully understood.

WHAT IS ONE THING THAT FRUIT GROWERS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VARIETY SELECTION AND THE NURSERY INDUSTRY?

Baugher: Growers should be willing to test varieties at their specific location. Varieties do not always perform in the way they are described. We have so many different microclimates on the East Coast, and a variety that performs well at one location may not do so at another.

Schuld: Nurseries, like growers, are also faced with the challenge of what variety to plant. Most finished trees take at least two years in the nursery, but there is no guarantee that a variety in demand today will still be two years in the future. If a grower is struggling to find a specific variety/rootstock combination available, consider growing contracts. Contract-grown trees have better prices and improved quality.

ARE THERE ROOTSTOCK ISSUES GROWERS SHOULD BE THINKING ABOUT?

Schuld: There are probably more rootstocks to choose from than at any point in the past. A new rootstock that performs a certain way in trials and small plantings may not perform as well at a different site or with different varieties. There are already many quality rootstocks available that have been field tested for over a decade. Use caution when considering a newly released rootstock.

Baugher: This is a topic that is so complex that it is difficult to really address the issue with a few words. We are moving away from the M-9 and M-26 clones, with much more emphasis on the Geneva clones, especially Geneva 11. We are also increasing our Bud 9 and Bud 10 production.

AS WE LOOK FURTHER OUT, WHAT ARE THE NEXT CHALLENGES THAT NEED TO BE ADDRESSED THAT YOU WILL BE FOCUSED ON? 

Baugher: We continue to focus on variety evaluations. We are quite interested in peach and nectarine varieties that are resistant to bacterial spot and apple varieties that are resistant to apple scab. We are also working with quite a few new pear varieties that show resistance to fire blight. In order to stay competitive in this market, we need to plan ahead and prepare to address the needs of our customers.

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