Plans Within Plants

Managing sheer number of samples, volume of data is focus for breeding program.

Kate Evans shows one of the program’s new seedlings and a page from the cross breeding “cull” sheets she and her staff use when moving plant material through the Washington State University pome fruit breeding system in Wenatchee, Washington, on Monday, April 23, 2018. (Photo by TJ Mullinax,  Good Fruit Grower )

Kate Evans shows one of the program’s new seedlings and a page from the cross breeding “cull” sheets she and her staff use when moving plant material through the Washington State University pome fruit breeding system in Wenatchee, Washington, on Monday, April 23, 2018. (Photo by TJ Mullinax, Good Fruit Grower)

Breeding fruit poses a monumental logistical challenge.

The plant material, traits and data points of 600 crosses and 300,000 seeds must be counted, labeled, indexed and not only stored accurately, but in a way that’s easy to find.

“One of the biggest challenges in a breeding program is just keeping track of your material,” said Kate Evans, the Washington State University apple breeder who oversees the program that released the much-hyped Cosmic Crisp.

Just take a look at her greenhouse. Tiny green seedlings stretch on tables the length of a basketball court, and that’s just from one year. More grow elsewhere at the university’s research stations and commercial trial blocks throughout the state, either making their way through a breeding journey that lasts 20 years, or waiting on standby to be used as parents.

The hunt for new varieties continues, as research technician Bonnie Schonberg uses a pencil eraser to apply pollen to the stamens of an unnamed variety at the university’s Sunrise research orchard near Wenatchee. Schonberg previously stripped and emasculated the blooms to isolate the cross pollination. (Photo by Ross Courtney,  Good Fruit Grower )

The hunt for new varieties continues, as research technician Bonnie Schonberg uses a pencil eraser to apply pollen to the stamens of an unnamed variety at the university’s Sunrise research orchard near Wenatchee. Schonberg previously stripped and emasculated the blooms to isolate the cross pollination. (Photo by Ross Courtney, Good Fruit Grower)

The breeding process all starts with the spring cross, gathering flowers in Ziploc bags from “father” trees, collecting their pollen and applying it with the eraser of a pencil to the stigma of “mother” trees — over and over again, row by row, tree by tree.

The seeds sprout in tiny pots made of irrigation pipe segments and spend the first year in the greenhouse slotted in racks of 96 because that’s how many the university’s DNA laboratory analyzes at a time. A staff member’s friend constructed them of plastic mesh especially for the breeding program.

Evans compresses the reams of data into a simple map with green or red for each rack — green for keep, red for cull. The culls are either thrown away or donated as bug food for an entomology project. Their DNA simply did not have the genetic markers of the traits the breeding program seeks.

In spite of technology, it’s all a rough guess. Evans cannot know for sure if she discards an absolute gem, the apple that would redefine apples.

“There’s never really a wow moment,” Evans said. It’s just a huge process of elimination, she said, though she prefers the term “selection.”

The seedlings that make the cut are nurtured at Willow Drive Nursery in nearby Ephrata, then grafted onto Malling 9 rootstocks in an orchard, usually Columbia View, a plot overlooking the Columbia River about 15 miles north of Wenatchee to mature for about three or four years.

Only then do they enter phase one selection based on their growth habits and fruit production. That lasts for about another three or four years. The favorable samples advance to phase two, replicated to 15 trees at three trial sites. Over the winter, Evans predicted 10 new selections would be planted for phase two this year.

Phase three gets serious, with grower evaluations, taste surveys, focus groups and storage tests. The grower-funded Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which funds some of the breeding program’s work, has partnered with the university to manage those phase three trials.

The whole process takes as long as 20 years. 

(Graphic by Ross Courtney and Jared Johnson,  Good Fruit Grower . Illustrations provided by WSU)

(Graphic by Ross Courtney and Jared Johnson, Good Fruit Grower. Illustrations provided by WSU)

Meanwhile, Evans keeps many of those crosses passed over in earlier phases, using them as parents for new crosses, meaning her program will continually grow. Her goal is to keep the 20-year pipeline full, so new varieties are always on the way. She does not believe any single apple, even a good one, will prop up Washington’s apple industry by itself.

So far, the university has two cultivars, known as L and M, in phase three. They are crosses of Cripps Pink and Honeycrisp, planted in commercial trials in Quincy. Evans and her team still use variety numbers internally but began publicly identifying their samples with letters to protect patent and trademark odds down the road. They predate Evans, who started in 2008.

Both varieties are tart, crisp and juicy and typically generate excitement when the university passes the apples out with survey forms at trade shows and conferences. Still, their future is far from certain. “There’s no guarantee that either of them will make it,” Evans said. But if she has her way, there will be more new apples right behind them.

Article by Ross Courtney, Good Fruit Grower

Cosmic Crisp, An Apple for Washington Growers

Dan Plath, of Washington Fruit, one of the state’s larger fruit companies, asked Swanson to address questions about the continuing demand for Honeycrisp and organic apples and what the industry can expect in the rollout of the Cosmic Crisp, the new Washington State University variety expected to hit store shelves in 2020.

Swanson said the price for Honeycrisps — he calls them Moneycrisps — may fall if production keeps going up, but a 15 percent price drop in exchange for selling 200 percent more may be worth it.

And while shoppers may not be willing to eat more, the Honeycrisp story proves they are willing to spend more. They keep asking for higher quality and exclusivity.

Among fruits, strawberries have been gaining plate share at the most rapid rate, Swanson said, and berry giant Driscoll’s controls more than 90 percent of the genetics in producing better strawberries. Apple cultivar developers are more scattered, often at land grant colleges, and can’t move as quickly.

However, that only gives apples a better chance to tell a story and market their fruit much like wine. Thus, growers must gamble on new varieties, including Cosmic Crisp, he said.

“Cosmic Crisp is almost a mandatory industry development,” he said.

Cosmic Crisp is the brand name for WA 38, a variety developed by WSU’s breeding program specifically for Washington growers — suited for the climate and storage infrastructure of the nation’s top apple producing state. The industry has invested nearly $500 million in ramping up production and marketing.

Article by Ross Courtney, Good Fruit Grower

A New Apple to Get Your Teeth Into

After 30 years’ experimentation, farmers in Washington state are ready for the biggest ever planting of a new variety of apple.

How do you like them apples? Lead scientist Dr Kate Evans at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center. Photograph: Ted S. Warren/AP

How do you like them apples? Lead scientist Dr Kate Evans at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center. Photograph: Ted S. Warren/AP

Nearly 30 years ago, Dr Bruce Barritt was jeered when he branded the apple industry in Washington state a dinosaur for growing obsolete varieties such as red and golden delicious. Now, farmers in the state, where 70% of US apples are grown, are ripping up millions of trees and replacing them with a new variety, the cosmic crisp, which Barritt, a horticulturalist, has created in the decades since.

With 12m trees to be planted by 2020, and the first harvest of apples due in the shops in 2019, it is the biggest ever launch of a new apple. Around 10m 40lb boxes are expected to be produced in the next four years, compared with the usual 3-5m for a new variety. It’s a gamble for growers: replanting costs up to $50,000 per acre, so the cosmic crisp needs to fetch top dollar to make their investment worthwhile.

Barritt began his quest for the perfect apple in the 1980s, after being hired by Washington State University (WSU).

“I had two projects,” he says. “The orchards being grown were inefficient – big trees that required ladders, poor fruit quality because of shade in the trees… That was a problem I could tackle. But I thought the most important problem was that, at the time in Washington, 90% of the crop was red delicious and golden delicious – they’re not crisp, juicy or flavourful. I was giving a talk to 2,000 industry people and I told them these were obsolete. It didn’t go down well. If I asked them why they were still growing these varieties, they’d say ‘Because we grow them better than anybody else.’ That wasn’t good enough, because the consumer wasn’t happy.”

Barritt was convinced better varieties had to be developed, and made available to every farmer in the state (new varieties such as jazz and ambrosia are often only licensed to small clubs of growers). He spent six years lobbying the industry in Washington and the university for money to fund a breeding programme, which began in 1994.

“It’s a traditional breeding programme, not genetically modified; it’s hybridising existing varieties,” he explains. “All the traits important in an apple – the flavour, juiciness, crispness – are controlled by many genes. Our knowledge of genetics is not good enough to collect all those genes together and change them with genetic modification.”

Sweet but not too sweet. proof is in the tasting for the cosmic crisp. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

Sweet but not too sweet. proof is in the tasting for the cosmic crisp. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

Barritt created thousands of seedlings by cross-pollinating the blossoms of parent trees. “When they come into bearing, we walk the long rows and bite, chew and spit, because you can’t eat a lot of apples at once – your taste buds lose their sensitivity. The majority you bite into are terrible, but eventually you come up with ones that are good.”

The cosmic crisp, so named because of its yellow star-like flecks on a burgundy skin, is a cross between the honeycrisp and the enterprise. “Honeycrisp’s claim to fame is its crispness; it also has good sugar and acid and texture. Enterprise is large, full-coloured, stores well and is firm. It’s got good acidity and flavour in general.” Enterprise is also known for its resistance to fire blight.

The tree selected was known as WA38. “It was promising, so we made 15 trees and planted those in three locations in central Washington, and looked at those for three or four years of fruiting. We still liked it, so we made 200 trees of the same one and planted it in four sites in commercial orchards. We wanted to see how they performed in the hands of growers.”

Around this time, Barritt retired. Dr Kate Evans, a British horticulturalist who had been leading breeding programmes for East Malling Research in Kent, took over.

Testing of the apple continued and it was patented in 2014, with Barritt named as the “inventor”. For the next 10 years, it will only be available to US farmers in Washington, because they helped fund the breeding programme.

Evans said: “Outside the US, new varieties go through a variety rights application – you test them in different locations and compare them to varieties out there so that it can be seen they’re different and novel. In the US they don’t do that; it’s a plant patent system – like [with] any other invention, you submit an application that describes it in detail.”

Every cosmic crisp tree is a clone of the WA38 “mother tree”, which remains in WSU’s research orchard near Wenatchee. Buds from one tree are grafted on to existing apple tree roots. These buds grow into copies of the original tree.

To meet demand, nurseries are reproducing the trees on a massive scale. This year, there were only 600,000 available, which were allocated to growers using a draw.

Stemilt Growers, a fruit company in Wenatchee, has planted 180,000 trees. Its president, West Mathison, said: “The apple has got great flavour. The crunch is really consistent. There’s more strength in the connective tissue of the cells than the cell walls themselves, so your teeth break through the cells and flavour, and juice is released. It has a unique flavour – sweet but not too sweet, and a little bit of acid, so it has some complexity. It’s also got a really nice storage life. I’m planting it on an old golden delicious block. Red and golden are falling out of favour with the market,” Mathison said. “It’s definitely a gamble. We don’t know yet what the retail price will be.”

Barritt, however, is confident the apple will be a winner. “This variety has been tested in the research setting, in grower orchards, in cold storage and with consumers more than any other apple in the world,” he says. “I’m not nervous.”

Article by Lucy Rock, The Guardian