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

WSU'S PRESIDENT FOCUSES ON ACHIEVEMENTS

Washington State University President Kirk Schulz shared some of the university's recent highlights (the Cosmic Crisp Apple).

Schulz boasted of WSU's economic effect on the state, including its boost to the wine industry and the university's new Cosmic Crisp Apple, a product of WSU's tree fruit breeding program, which is expected to hit store shelves in 2019. Twelve million Cosmic Apple trees are expected to be planted, in what Schulz called the largest introduction of an apple, ever.

Article by Taylor Nadauld, Moscow-Pullman Daily News

Cosmic Crisp™ apple hoping to be out of this world

It takes years to develop a new variety. Cosmic Crisp – the newest apple variety – was 20 years in the making and began at Washington State University under an experimental fruit-breeding program. It’s anticipated to edge out older fruit, such as the outdated red delicious. It’s a naturally bred variety, a cross between Enterprise and Honeycrisp. “We like to think that it took the best qualities of both apples,” explained Kathryn Grandy, director of marketing for Proprietary Variety Management. PVM was brought on to provide its experience in research and development, consumer focus and brand development for the Cosmic Crisp.

Huge interest from growers

In 2014 there were so many growers interested in taking this new fruit on, WSU had to choose through a draw system to make their choices more fair. 2017 is the first year of planting. Somewhere around 600,000+ trees were planted. For next year, Grandy says, there are about 5.5 million trees on order, which is almost the maximum number of trees they’re able to provide. “We anticipate the same going into 2019 as well.” Tree orders for 2019 already number in the millions.

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Washington variety exclusive

It will remain a Washington exclusive for the next decade at least. “Growers have been generous in supporting the efforts of WSU and the breeding program. In return they’re given a 10-year exclusive deal to grow the apple,” said Grandy. There are plans, however to do some smaller globalization of the apple in the future years in other growing regions of the world. “But, it’s going to be a very strong Washington apple,” she stated. 35 growers within the state received trees this year. Some have chosen to plant on new ground, some are using existing acreage.

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Commercial volume in 2019

The first commercial availability will be in the fall season of 2019, which will be the third leaf on the trees being planted this year. There will be much more volume anticipated in 2020 because of the subsequently planted trees next year. “It will really continue to ramp up after that,” said Grandy. Washington growers will be exporting to Canada, Mexico and Asia.

Meets consumer's changing tastes

This will impact sales of other varieties, what with consumer tastes changing. “Red Delicious was at one time one of the most popular but consumers are looking for sweet, crunchy and crisp.” With the volume available and only continuing to ramp up with commercial availability, Grandy says she has a feeling it may affect other varieties.  “It’s sweet, tart, crispy, and juicy. It has a wonderful flavor.” The name itself was chosen by consumers through focus group testing to get feedback on the apple’s appearance, flavor and characteristics. 

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Excellent storing apple

She says it also stores amazingly well. “Its storability and volume should make it a 12-month a year apple. Some apples taste good but don’t store as well; they become flavorless or less juicy and mealy. This variety has proven it stores extremely well for the full season.”

Article by Rebecca Dumais, Fresh Plaza