Visionary or Disaster? New Apple Plantings Continue, Backed by Science

Are U.S. apple growers visionaries, or are they making the worst decisions in their history by planting more trees? As Dave Eddy indicated in his January State of the Industry story, nearly half of them are planning to increase their plantings in 2018. He says such “ambitious production plans” are based more on the sheer number of trees required for new plantings and renovation of high-density orchards than the adoption of new apple cultivars.

However, Dave’s survey results also show that that around 40% of those apple growers will be planting managed or heirloom varieties, almost as many who will be planting traditional varieties (‘Honeycrisp,’ ‘Fuji,’ ‘Gala’).

I believe those are the visionary growers. Some time ago they concluded Reds and Goldens and ‘Braeburn’ are done, but now they see the challenges with Grannies, ‘Gala,’ ‘Fuji’ and ‘McIntosh.’ Meanwhile, the remarkable ‘Honeycrisp’ ride goes on. Consumers are willing to pay more, repeatedly, for the taste experience this game-changer cultivar has provided.

It has been a long time coming, but here we are. Consumer preference for a superior eating experience is finally a genuine and significant factor in the national industry, otherwise, why would the national apple industry have adapted to the production and handling challenges ‘Honeycrisp’ brings?

Future of Growing Fruit
Looking forward, our future will be built on new genetics and new production/handling systems. The visionaries who do it right are choosing the right genetics and production/handling systems to satisfy consumer preference and still turn a profit. Labor constraints are making the choice of efficient, high-density fruiting wall orchards and modern food handling and storage facilities the only sustainable and safe option.

But, what is the right choice for a new scion cultivar, now that a grower will select among genuinely novel cultivars, rather than endless strains of ‘Gala’ and ‘Fuji,’ or materials bred elsewhere? While there is tremendous risk and expense involved in this selection — as well as the choice of production/handing systems — the information on the right cultivar pick is building.

Articles in our familiar trade publications on new tree fruit scion cultivars are common enough, but the story of new apple cultivars is not confined to trade publications. Recently, major metropolitan newspapers, National Public Radio, and CBS’s ”Sunday Morning” have all carried significant and exuberant features on the recently patented ‘WA 38’ — commercialized as the ‘Cosmic Crisp’ brand apple, developed by the Washington State University apple breeding program.

But the story for new apple cultivars is not confined to trade publications. Recently, major metropolitan newspapers, National Public Radio, and CBS’s ”Sunday Morning” have all carried significant and exuberant features on the recently commercialized ‘WA 38’ — patented as the ‘Cosmic Crisp’ brand apple, developed by the Washington State University apple breeding program.

Their exuberance is understandable. The scale of this commercialization for a new apple cultivar is absolutely unprecedented. While the ‘Cosmic Crisp’ story it is not exactly breaking news, given the very slow pace of developing and commercializing tree fruit cultivars, the extraordinary scale and timeframe of the ‘Cosmic Crisp’ introduction – from 10-12 million trees planted in Washington State in the next four years – truly merits the widespread coverage.

So, is this irrational exuberance? Is this the right genetics for a Washington apple grower to justify spending $40,000/acre for a new planting? Will consumers like it as much as ‘Honeycrisp,’ or any of the couple dozen new cultivars?

Skeptically, a National Public Radio piece by Dan Charles included these lines: “The flood of orders has astonished almost everybody in the industry. In fact, it’s provoking some anxiety. After all, consumers haven’t even seen ‘Cosmic Crisp’ yet. Nobody really knows if they’ll like it.” (“The Salt,” May 3, 2017).

While I have to agree we do not know with absolute certainly if every apple consumer is going to like ‘Cosmic Crisp’ enough to buy it repeatedly, at a price that provides a fair return to the grower, I can state with unshakable confidence that consumer acceptance is not an issue.

There’s More to ‘Cosmic Crisp’ than Meets the Eye
Press coverage to date, both in the trade and public arenas, has not adequately conveyed the activities and outcomes of extensive research that preceded the release of ‘WA 38,’ the variety name of the branded ‘Cosmic Crisp.’ In fact, that research is ongoing, even as commercialization proceeds at full steam.

This methodical, rigorous, and robust pre-commercialization testing was led by the two Washington State University scientists who co-developed ‘WA 38’: Bruce Barritt and Kate Evans. In 2008, upon Barritt’s retirement, Evans assumed leadership of the WSU Apple Breeding Program and began working closely with Carolyn Ross, a WSU scientist in the School of Food Science.

While Barritt and breeding program staff were the front line “chewers and spitters” who worked their way through tens of thousands of seedlings and their often awful-tasting fruit in their test orchard, it was the partnership developed and maintained with Ross, and funded by the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission (WTFRC), that helped precisely identify the fruit attributes, good and bad, of the dozens of selections in the advanced phases of the program

This partnership included repeated testing over many years by taste panels trained by Ross in sensory profiling. Under tightly controlled lab conditions, beginning in 2008, these panels compared different selections, the same selections produced in widely varying cooperator test orchard locations, and stored under different regimes (RA, CA, 1-MCP). They even compared fruit coming from first and second picks. Along the way, Ross also trained the current staff members in the breeding program.

Data from these sensory analysis experiments were complemented by classical consumer preference tests, either with panelists around the WSU Pullman campus, or at a popular shopping mall in more urban Spokane, WA. While less tightly-controlled than the sensory panels, data for consumer preferences were gathered and analyzed systematically and rigorously.

Meeting Consumers’ and Growers’ Demands Alike
The value of these two approaches to assessing “what the consumer likes” was greatly strengthened by the utilization of fruit produced under commercial conditions with grower cooperators in central Washington. Here another partnership was critically important. Tom Auvil, then Research Horticulturist with the WTFRC, coordinated these grower cooperator trials with Evans.

Auvil and commission staff logged thousands of miles and lugged thousands of crates of test fruit back and forth. Early on and over many years, the Breeding Program Advisory Committee, composed of Washington apple growers and scientists, had numerous opportunities to sample fruit freshly harvested and after storage, providing Evans with their systemic evaluation. Annually, the apple breeding program at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association meeting was among the most popular booths, as attendees provided their feedback on program selections.

Production issues have also been well-studied. WSU scientists Stefano Musacchi and Karen Lewis have conducted horticultural trials to provide the sort of information that will allow growers to determine their preferences for rootstock, training system, pruning program, and crop load management. Numerous postharvest projects, led by Ines Hanrahan of the WTFRC, not only provided a steady supply of carefully stored fruit for taste panels, industry stakeholders, and potential customers, but demonstrated the remarkable lack of physiological disorders shown by ‘WA 38.’

Does all this effort, from the initial bite of the fruit by the breeder through the horticultural, postharvest, and sensory evaluations, guarantee the consumer will like the fruit and growers will recoup their investment? No, not with 100% certainty. However, it does provide those growers who choose to plant ‘Cosmic Crisp’ with enough solid information to make informed decisions and avoid surprises in the orchard or warehouse. Now, they are equipped to manage their risk intelligently and achieve their vision of increasing consumer demand and running a profitable business.