Post-Cosmic Question: What’s next?

With launch of WA 38 underway, WSU’s apple breeding program hopes to build on successes.

Kate Evans, Washington State University’s pome fruit breeder, is surrounded by her “phase 0” seedlings growing in the WSU Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in Wenatchee, Washington, greenhouses on Monday, April 23, 2018. Evans says even though the breeding program has been around for 24 years, it’s very young compared to other programs around the globe. With Cosmic Crisp a few years away from consumers, she admits there’s mounting pressure to build off its success. However, Evans says the small team makes do using repurposed, antiquated facilities and inadequate staff workspaces that hamper the program’s potential. For instance, this greenhouse and headhouse, once a USDA facility built over 60 years ago, has forced the staff to content with an ever growing list of non-research associated issues, from parts failures, rat invasions and potentially hazardous facility flaws. (Photo by TJ Mullinax,  Good Fruit Grower )

Kate Evans, Washington State University’s pome fruit breeder, is surrounded by her “phase 0” seedlings growing in the WSU Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in Wenatchee, Washington, greenhouses on Monday, April 23, 2018. Evans says even though the breeding program has been around for 24 years, it’s very young compared to other programs around the globe. With Cosmic Crisp a few years away from consumers, she admits there’s mounting pressure to build off its success. However, Evans says the small team makes do using repurposed, antiquated facilities and inadequate staff workspaces that hamper the program’s potential. For instance, this greenhouse and headhouse, once a USDA facility built over 60 years ago, has forced the staff to content with an ever growing list of non-research associated issues, from parts failures, rat invasions and potentially hazardous facility flaws. (Photo by TJ Mullinax, Good Fruit Grower)

The well-hyped Cosmic Crisp is in the ground and on its way. So, what’s next?

The Washington State University apple breeding program, which released the variety, now stands at a crossroads. Breeder Kate Evans has more potential new varieties in the pipeline. Her greenhouse needs renovations. She wants help in her research orchard.

Meanwhile, though WA 38, to be marketed as Cosmic Crisp, is still a few years from store shelves, the university faces decisions about how to allocate royalties projected to reach millions.

The 24-year-old breeding program is young compared to its competitors around the world. Those of Cornell University and the University of Minnesota date back to the late 1800s. However, the apple industry expects Evans and her team to build off Cosmic’s success.

“Like any breeding program, I’m a firm believer that it should evolve,” Evans told growers in January at the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission apple research review in Pasco. “The breeding program at WSU, any breeding program, evolves.”

She and the industry have some suggestions.

Facilities

For WSU breeding program staff, following in Cosmic Crisp’s success comes with potential pitfalls every day. Staff must navigate through narrow, rotting doorways, step over and around broken and cut concrete floors covered with makeshift steel plating and at worst scrap wood, just to successfully grow future apple varieties. (Photo by TJ Mullinax,  Good Fruit Grower )

For WSU breeding program staff, following in Cosmic Crisp’s success comes with potential pitfalls every day. Staff must navigate through narrow, rotting doorways, step over and around broken and cut concrete floors covered with makeshift steel plating and at worst scrap wood, just to successfully grow future apple varieties. (Photo by TJ Mullinax, Good Fruit Grower)

Evans seeks more labor to help maintain the Columbia View research orchard north of Wenatchee and more accurate DNA tests to help her genetically screen for a wider array of traits. But facilities’ improvement needs, also near the top of her wish list, may be the most obvious.

Evans and her staff at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee share a greenhouse and storage with other programs.

The 60-year-old structure with missing floorboards and a stone for a door prop lets in mice and rats attracted to her tender seedlings.

A laminated handwritten sign implores visitors to keep out beans, grains and seeds. Her staff built rat-proof cages out of mesh screens that bolt onto raised wooden frames directly over the plants. So far, that seems to be working, Evans said.

Meanwhile, equipment failures, rust and overcrowding also get in the way of her team’s work, she said.

Upgrades are needed elsewhere at the Wenatchee research center, which has not seen additions since the 1970s. Laboratory space is at a premium. “I got a list of 51 items,” quipped one audience member at the research review.

Growers and researchers are lobbying for a master facilities plan for the research centers in Wenatchee and Prosser, both of which have programs involving tree fruit. The university is working toward one, but it won’t happen all at once, said Scot Hulbert, associate dean of research for WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, or CAHNRS.

Turnover and adding new hires at WSU take time. In May, Hulbert replaced Jim Moyer, who retired, while the agriculture college’s new dean, André-Denis Girard Wright, was scheduled to start June 1.

Dilapidated makeshift greenhouse benches, screws for holding down protective rat caging, irrigation parts storage… just one example of how the WSU Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center facility staff is making do with antiquated facilities and equipment. (Photo by TJ Mulinax,  Good Fruit Growe r)

Dilapidated makeshift greenhouse benches, screws for holding down protective rat caging, irrigation parts storage… just one example of how the WSU Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center facility staff is making do with antiquated facilities and equipment. (Photo by TJ Mulinax, Good Fruit Grower)

The university is in the process of hiring a postharvest physiologist and soil specialist for horticultural programs. Those faculty members will have needs for facilities and equipment just to start their jobs. “That’s got to happen now or very soon,” he said.

Like many universities, WSU has a backlog of deferred maintenance. The university has been assessing those needs across the entire campus since last year, said Kimi Lucas, CAHNRS director of operations.

This summer, the two fruit research centers will begin the creation of a long-term plan when an outside design team holds workshops with faculty and staff. Then comes finding a way to pay for the work, through a combination of university funds, grants, endowments, etc., she said.

Part of a recent $32 million endowment from the tree fruit industry, the largest in WSU history, is slated for facilities and research orchard improvements. However, the endowment won’t shoulder the whole burden, Lucas said.

“It would definitely not be only the endowment,” she said.

Changes in the past 10 years

The breeding program was created in 1994. Evans arrived in 2008, after Cosmic Crisp and yet-to-be released selections L and M were first crossed.

Since then, the apple industry has seen numerous changes. Managed varieties, usually in the form of clubs, are on the rise. Honeycrisp has set new expectations among consumers. Technology for DNA marker detection has improved.

Behind it all, Cosmic Crisp has created a new model for releasing apples that skirts the club method but also manages the variety.

Washington growers get exclusive North American rights to propagate and sell Cosmic for the first 10 years while the university contracted with Yakima, Washington-based Proprietary Variety Management, or PVM, to launch the apple commercially.

However, that doesn’t mean other varieties will follow the same path, Moyer said. The university has a cultivar licensing committee to help determine the rollout for each product.

He does not believe the university is required by law to put commercialization of a variety out to public bid, though that’s how PVM was hired for WA 38. “It depends on what the ask is,” Moyer said. If it’s just a matter of issuing a license, probably not, he said; if more services are required, then it might.

PVM also has been contracted to manage WA 2, the apple breeding program’s first apple released in 2009 and trade named Sunrise Magic.

PVM has made no overtures on any further releases, said Moyer and Lynnell Brandt, company president.

Evans points out cultivars in various stages of development at the Columbia View research orchard near Wenatchee. The row of trees to her right are kept as “mother” trees for new crosses, while the buds to her left are younger trees starting Phase 1. “Every year we plant trees, but every year we take out trees, as well,” she said. (Photo by TJ Mulinax,  Good Fruit Grower )

Evans points out cultivars in various stages of development at the Columbia View research orchard near Wenatchee. The row of trees to her right are kept as “mother” trees for new crosses, while the buds to her left are younger trees starting Phase 1. “Every year we plant trees, but every year we take out trees, as well,” she said. (Photo by TJ Mulinax, Good Fruit Grower)

Royalties

Though Cosmic Crisp is still a couple of years away from store shelves, stakeholders are already discussing how to spend the money it will make.

PVM projects 9 million 40-pound boxes on store shelves in 2022. Even if they sell for only $20 per box — an extremely low estimate — that would generate $180 million in sales. Washington State University charges 4.25 percent in royalties, meaning $7.65 million for one year. That doesn’t include royalties growers pay for each tree they purchase.

As spelled out in the faculty manual, half of those royalties will go to the breeders, the university’s Office of Commercialization and the university’s Agricultural Research Center. The second half must be set aside for the “enhancement of vegetatively propagated variety programs in consultation with the breeders.” Fruit trees are propagated vegetatively or by grafting; grains such as wheat and barely are propagated by seed.

The university is forming a committee of packers, growers and other industry stakeholders to devise a blueprint for how that second portion of the royalties are distributed. University officials hope to convene the group this summer, Hulbert and Moyer said. One idea is to create an endowment, designed to fund the program’s work regardless of what happens to prices and the market. “You never know how long this wave is going to last.”

That’s how the University of Minnesota handles royalties from its varieties, Honeycrisp, for which its patent has run out, SweeTango, Frost Bite and others. Rave will join the list soon.

The endowment of the Minnesota breeding program now stands at $1.6 million, said Jim Luby, director of fruit breeding programs, which is designed to help sustain the program in lean years. “You just don’t get hits that often,” Luby said. “It’s wonderful to have something like a Honeycrisp or a Cosmic Crisp, but those won’t come around every five years.”

The Minnesota program has released 24 new varieties to the world in its time. The state was once known for Haralson, a popular regional cultivar released in 1922 and the most widely grown apple in Minnesota until Honeycrisp was released in 1991.

Cornell, with 66 apple varieties under its belt, does not set aside royalties into an endowment, said breeder Susan Brown, creator of SnapDragon and RubyFrost, though she thinks that’s a good idea for WSU’s Cosmic Crisp royalties.

Minnesota’s breeding efforts are funded only through general taxes. At Cornell and WSU, the industry contributes directly through grower research assessments. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission recently approved another year of WSU apple scion development, led by Evans, to the tune of $268,000. Evans also receives grants from other organizations.

Besides the grants, the Research Commission partners directly with the breeding program to manage grower evaluations and directly carries out some supporting research. All told, over the past 10 years, the commission has funded $3.1 million worth of activities related to the breeding program.

The growers would like to change their funding role in the future, said Mike Willett, manager of the Research Commission. They don’t plan to withdraw their support, but they think royalties should fund the basic program, from crossing through fruit evaluation, while the commission’s grants go to new ideas and experiments.

“The use of royalty funds to support the core activities of the breeding program would free grower resources to allow greater emphasis on funding novel and emerging research directions in the apple breeding program,” he said.

Some growers on the commission contacted by Good Fruit Grower deferred comments to Willett.

Moyer and Evans are glad to hear growers are willing to continue funding at some level. They believe that industry investment will keep growers and packers “at the table,” as Evans described it, involved in the decision making and creativity.

“One of the strengths of this program is that it’s so interactive with the industry,” Evans said.

Article by Ross Courtney, Good Fruit Grower

The Next Big Apple Variety Was Bred for Deliciousness in Washington

Created at Washington State University, the Cosmic Crisp is growing beyond Cougar country.

Washington state is widely known as one of the best places in the world to grow apples, but it isn’t particularly well known for breeding them — a fact that bothered growers like Robert Kershaw and scientists like Bruce Barritt in the 1990s.

“When I got out of college, I was absolutely shocked that our industry was Reds and Goldens and that any new variety seemed to come from some other country,” says Kershaw, whose family started growing pears and apples in Yakima in the 1900s. “All the cool stuff was coming from somewhere else.”

Washington’s most successful apple, the Red Delicious, was developed in Iowa. The Golden Delicious got its start in West Virginia, the Gala in New Zealand and the Granny Smith in Australia. The Fuji was bred in Japan and the hugely popular — and expensive — Honeycrisp was created in Minnesota (and became Minnesota’s official state fruit in 2006).

Growers know it can take 20 to 30 years to breed and select a new variety viable enough for commercialization. And in the 1990s, the state’s reliance on the Red Delicious — notorious for looking appetizing even when it turns mealy from long storage — was leading the industry into a tailspin. It ultimately would cause some growers, packers and other industry players to go out of business.

Horticulturalist Barritt also thought the state’s popular varieties were obsolete and was already lobbying Washington State University (WSU) and the industry to fund an apple breeding program, which eventually began in 1994. Barritt’s quest for better commercial apples has resulted in what growers and industry players believe will replace the aging Red Delicious and the grass-roots consumer favorite, the Honeycrisp. 

The new apple, a variety named WA 38 by researchers and branded the Cosmic Crisp for marketing purposes, is leading WSU into uncharted territory. The university and its Yakima-based commercialization partner, Proprietary Variety Management (PVM), are trying to refine a new industry economic model being used for “premium” apple varieties. The model replaces the old “push” system, in which everyone involved — breeder, nursery operator, grower, packer, marketer and retailer — pushed varieties such as red delicious that were less prone to bruising, could be stored for a year, had a long shelf life, were easy to grow and weren’t susceptible to disease. The new “pull” approach is designed to get the customer involved earlier in the process via consumer research and feedback. Think taste tests and focus groups. Not surprisingly, consumers want varietes that are red, juicy, crunchy, taste good and don’t turn brown quickly. 

“The consumer has the money. We want the money. So, we have to find out what they want in order to get the money. It’s as simple as that,” argues PVM President Lynnell Brandt. Cosmic Crisp, it turns out, meets the criteria set out by both growers and consumers. 

WSU and PVM are launching Cosmic Crisp at a time when more than 20 other varieties with premium aspirations are hitting the market. Even so, grower enthusiasm for Cosmic Crisp is so strong that the apple’s launch will be the biggest ever. If all goes well, it will be the state’s — and WSU’s — first commercially successful home-bred apple.

Bred by WSU’s Barritt, now retired, and his successor, Professor Kate Evans, the Cosmic Crisp is a dark burgundy-red apple with star-like flecks, or lenticels, that helped give the apple its name. It’s a cross between the Enterprise and the Honeycrisp. Earlier this year, 35 growers in Washington — the only ones allowed to grow Cosmic Crisp — planted an unprecedented number of the new trees, about 630,000 in all.

Demand for the new variety was so great that WSU and PVM held a random, computer-generated lottery in 2014 to award the first trees because there weren’t enough for every Washington grower who wanted in on the action. An additional 5.5 million trees have been ordered for 2018 by many of the 445 applicants who failed to win the initial lottery; 5.5 million more trees are expected to be planted in 2019.

At 11.6 million trees in a mere three years, the number of Cosmic Crisp trees planted and ordered exceeds the total number of trees currently in production in Michigan, the country’s third-largest apple-producing state, which boasts 11 million trees.

It also represents the fastest ramp-up of any variety — and it has some people worried. Nearly 12 million trees are 10 times the typical amount planted at this stage of development, and it is occurring in just three years, not the 20 years it took the last consumer favorite, the Honeycrisp, to reach such volume. 

Cosmic Crisp growers are ripping out old, less profitable varieties, often upgrading by planting more intensively with dwarfing rootstock, “V” or upright trellises, and planting 1,200 to 1,800 trees per acre. Typically, there are 110 to 120 very large trees per acre in older Red or Golden Delicious orchards.

Growers are upgrading hundreds of acres at a cost of some $35,000 per acre, more than $60,000 if they are buying new land. But because the Cosmic Crisp is bred for dense planting, fewer than 1,500 acres can accommodate 2 million trees. The cost to Washington growers is estimated at $40 million.

So, why are apple growers willing to make this multimillion-dollar bet?

“A number of things are coming together at the same time to make it very exciting and intriguing,” says PVM’s Brandt, who also runs Brandt’s Fruit Trees in Yakima. “[Cosmic Crisp] was bred here for our conditions and it is a ‘wow’ apple. It really has exceptional eating quality, exceptional storage, exceptional shelf life and it doesn’t have much, if any, oxidation.”

Because it is slow to brown, the Cosmic Crisp doesn’t need to be kept in low-oxygen storage It also is hardier than the Honeycrisp, which can succumb to rot and mildew in the field — it’s not uncommon for half of a Honeycrisp crop to be left in the orchard — and to punctures and bruising in the packing house. 

“It’s the right thing for the right time,” Brandt waxes on about Cosmic Crisp. “The industry is recognizing their flagship Red Delicious is declining in popularity and reputation, and there is need to find a superior flagship. The hope is that this selection can be that apple.”

Brandt and other growers won’t know how consumers will react to the apple until 2019 or, more likely, 2020. Limited amounts of Cosmic Crisp will officially hit a small number of supermarkets in 2019, when Brandt’s computer models expect the young trees to bear their first fruit and to produce about 170,000 40-pound boxes.

Typically, a single grower, or maybe a handful, will bet on a new variety, and it takes 10 years or more to get a million trees planted. That volume can produce enough apples to fulfill regional orders; more trees are then needed to fill national demand. Year-round distribution requires an even larger volume of apples and trees. And that’s what Washington growers are shooting for.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen a variety that has to be an instant hit because there’s so much production going in on the front end,” says Kaari Stannard, owner and president of New York Apple Sales in Glenmont, New York, and secretary of the U.S. Apple Association.

“There’s no gentle curve leading up to it.”

Smaller apple-producing states simply can’t come up with that volume, she says. Washington state has about 165,000 bearing acres of apples and produces 65 to 70 percent of the nation’s supply. That’s more than twice the combined total of bearing acres in New York, the second-largest apple-producing state, and Michigan, according to 2016 USDA figures.

“We’re just waiting to see what kind of standards they set and how they plan to bring it to market,” Stannard says. “It’s going to be a very interesting story.”

Growers are betting the Cosmic Crisp will command a premium price, much like the Honeycrisp, which changed the economics of the commercial apple industry. Bred at the University of Minnesota, the Honeycrisp was the first widely accepted, patented, premium-priced apple. It fetches an average of $3.49 a pound in stores today and still brings to growers $50 to $60 per box. 

. . .

The marketing of Cosmic Crisp falls to an advisory committee headed up by Kershaw, who was drafted after he gave WSU and PVM an earful about the bungled WA 2 launch.

“I thought I offended them so badly that they’d never talk to me again,” Kershaw says. “But two days later, they called me and said, ‘We liked all your ideas. We’re going with them and want you to be chairman of the marketing committee.’

“I thought the Cosmic Crisp would ramp up moderately,” he adds. “I didn’t expect everyone to decide to plant 10 million trees. We’ve gone from a variety you couldn’t launch to one that’s almost launching so fast that it’s scary.”

Kathryn Grandy, who leads marketing for PVM, says the promotional budget for Cosmic Crisp and its official funding source have yet to be determined. No doubt the budget will need to be in the multiple millions. At the height of its national promotion of fresh apples in 2000, the Washington Apple Commission spent $8 million to market Washington-grown apples. Today, the organization only handles international sales.

In an unprecedented display of cooperation, 13 marketing groups in Washington are setting aside their rivalry to work together to market Cosmic Crisp and advise PVM. They have already agreed to leave their own packing-house names out of any advertising and plan to use Washington Apple as secondary branding.

Of course, some are skeptical that individual competitors can work together. The Cosmic Crisp committee members “already have their own varieties and built-in incentives to push their own premium varieties with retailers,” says O’Rourke. “It’s going to be a weakness of the Cosmic Crisp. Stemilt [Growers] has SweeTango, CMI and Ambrosia, and Oppenheimer [Group] has a huge incentive to promote Jazz and Envy. And those are the folks on the Cosmic Crisp marketing committee.”

Kershaw counters: “There are just five marketing teams that do 80 percent or more of the state’s apple marketing, so it’s easy to talk strategy versus 30 years ago, when the Washington Apple Commission was promoting and there were 60 or 70 marketers. We’ve always been competitors, but we’re currently working together on this project, and it’s going pretty well so far.”

The industry is still a few years away from knowing if America will warm to this large, juicy apple with a remarkably firm and crisp texture. But Kershaw, whose family has been growing apples for five generations, sees both economic promise and a measure of bragging rights at the core of Cosmic Crisp’s gestation. 

“If we’re successful and the royalty dollars come back to the industry and the research department,” he muses, “maybe my grandkids will be able to say they get all the best varieties from Washington research and breeding programs.”

Article by M. Sharon Baker, Seattle Business Magazine

Should Cosmic Crisp have a “utility” grade?

Questions remain about color standards for new Washington State University variety.

Washington State University has spent two decades developing WA 38, now known as Cosmic Crisp. The first sizable commercial crop will be harvested in 2020. Photo by TJ Mullinax,  Good Fruit Grower.

Washington State University has spent two decades developing WA 38, now known as Cosmic Crisp. The first sizable commercial crop will be harvested in 2020. Photo by TJ Mullinax, Good Fruit Grower.

When it comes to grading standards for the new Washington State University apple variety Cosmic Crisp, Washington’s industry is already charting new territory.

Usually, grade standards for varieties are set by state statute, with input from the industry. Once those standards are set, they can be changed, but with time and effort.

Instead for Cosmic Crisp, a grading subcommittee of the industry’s marketing advisory group is establishing grading standards to allow the industry to be more responsive and flexible and meet the changing needs of the market.

Grading standards will be key to ensuring consumers receive a high-quality piece of fruit each time, said subcommittee chairman Dave Allan of Allan Bros., a longtime growing family in Washington’s Yakima Valley.

Already, minimum color standards remain one area of debate. There likely will be two grades for color, but there’s debate over whether there should be a so-called “utility grade,” he said.

Those on one side of the argument believe selling a “utility” color grade could diminish the Cosmic Crisp brand early in the marketing push, while others believe that if people and markets are willing to buy it, why not service them, he said. “That’s really a fantastic debate. We don’t have an answer yet,” Allan said.

Most standards, such as for bruising or russeting, will likely remain the same as other varieties.

But the subcommittee is seeking some answers from researchers before deciding on final grade standards:

  • Should the industry be marketing apples from 2-year-old trees? Allan said the subcommittee wants researchers to make some recommendations about the quality of apples from young trees.
     
  • Should they set a minimum harvest maturity for shipment? The subcommittee is hoping researchers can provide information on what would be the best indicator — starch, soluble solids, background color — to ensure that consumers receive a good tasting apple from the first shipment of the season through the last.
     
  • What is the eating quality of apples at different color rates, say 60 percent, 40 percent and 20 percent color? That calls for a tasting panel. If eating quality is the same for all three color standards, great, Allan said. “But at 25 percent red, if two-thirds say, ‘That doesn’t taste good,’ we’ve got some good information to say we shouldn’t be marketing those apples because it doesn’t deliver the brand.”

The market is established on the retail shelf, Allan said, adding that he has high hopes. “I think it’s a good enough apple that it will become one of the major apples,” he said. “I’ve worked with quite a few new varieties, and I rate it up there pretty high.”

Article by Shannon Dininny, Good Fruit Grower.

Cosmic tips to growing WA 38

Stefano Musacchi, Washington State University horticulturist and endowed chair in tree fruit physiology and management, discusses fruit spacing of the Cosmic Crisp in September at the Sunrise research orchard near Wenatchee.. Photo by Ross Courtney,  Good Fruit Grower .

Stefano Musacchi, Washington State University horticulturist and endowed chair in tree fruit physiology and management, discusses fruit spacing of the Cosmic Crisp in September at the Sunrise research orchard near Wenatchee.. Photo by Ross Courtney, Good Fruit Grower.

The first commercial trees were planted this spring of the new apple variety WA 38, following nearly a decade of research into the horticultural traits at four research plantings and the storage behavior of the fruit.

Developed by Washington State University and marketed under the brand name Cosmic Crisp, the WA 38 has unique behavior compared to most scion varieties.

Those of us who’ve worked with the trees in the field have found the variety to be grower friendly, but for those growers who’ve just planted their trees, here are the top five tips for the first year:

Never forget that WA 38 is a Type 4 tree that produces a lot of blind wood, and growers don’t want to sacrifice productive space to blind wood, particularly in a fruit wall. To avoid blind wood, you should…

  • Prune. The variety has the potential to produce feathers, and you should cut them back to four to six buds, cutting the terminal 1 foot from the top of the central leader.
     
  • Never bend the branches below 90 degrees, which both creates blind wood and the potential for the tree to become a biennial producer very quickly. WA 38, in particular, has a huge capacity to produce flowers, and because it’s producing flowers on one-year wood, growers could see an excess of flowers one year, followed by a dramatic reduction the following year.
     
  • Don’t crop in the first year. If you have a wonderful tree, wait until at least the second year to crop.
     
  • And remember, WA 38 usually sets just a single fruit or two fruit per cluster. That means thinning has to be really targeted, on the basis of flower distribution and fruit set.

It’s also important to remember that WA 38 requires a little bit more space, about 10 percent more, compared to other varieties. It’s a vigorous tree and needs adequate light for the bi-color fruit to color, so prune to allow more space to reduce the number of leaves and the amount of shade in the canopy. •

Article by Stefano Musacchi on Good Fruit Grower


Stefano Musacchi, Ph.D., is an associate professor and endowed chair in tree fruit physiology and management at Washington State University in Wenatchee, Washington. He can be reached at stefano.musacchi@wsu.edu

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

This Is What It Looks Like When A New Apple Comes To Town

Apricot trees are removed to make way for Cosmic Crisp. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Apricot trees are removed to make way for Cosmic Crisp. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Apple growers in Washington state, who dominate American apple production, are starting to plant a new kind of apple. It's the fastest launch of a new variety in history.

These farmers have been looking for a new variety to grow. Older types of apples, like Red Delicious, have fallen out of favor among American consumers. So growers are ripping out old fruit trees — in this case, apricot trees — to make way for an apple variety called Cosmic Crisp. It's the most successful result so far of an apple breeding effort that Bruce Barritt began at Washington State University more than 20 years ago.

Bruce Baritt, retired apple breeder. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Bruce Baritt, retired apple breeder. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Barritt selected the tree called WA 38 — now branded as Cosmic Crisp — from among thousands of seedings that he created by cross-pollinating the blossoms of parent trees. Cosmic Crisp, he says, preserves its taste better than any other variety during months of storage. "Crispness, juiciness, acidity, sugar; all that combined just doesn't exist in any other variety," he says.

Cosmic Crisp was just released for commercial planting, and this spring, apple growers are planting all the trees that they can get their hands on. They've reportedly ordered 12 million Cosmic Crisp trees for planting over the next few years.

Workers and freshly planted Cosmic Crisp trees in an orchard owned by McDougall and Sons, near Wenatchee, WA. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Workers and freshly planted Cosmic Crisp trees in an orchard owned by McDougall and Sons, near Wenatchee, WA. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Replanting can cost more than $50,000 per acre. Farmers say that they'll need premium prices for these apples in order to recoup that investment. If Cosmic Crisp apples sell only for the same price as, say, Gala apples, "it'll be a wreck," says farmer Jan Luebber. So these new plantings are a big gamble for apple growers.

The Cosmic Crisp mother tree. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

The Cosmic Crisp mother tree. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Every Cosmic Crisp tree is derived from this original "mother tree," which still stands where it was planted 20 years ago, in a research orchard managed by Washington State University. It's been reproduced through old-fashioned cloning techniques, grafting buds from one tree onto existing apple tree roots. Those buds grow into copies of the original tree.

Tree nurseries like Willow Drive Nursery, in the town of Ephrata, Wash., play a key role in the Cosmic Crisp launch. They reproduce these trees on a massive scale, growing new trees from each bud that forms on existing trees in their "mother orchard." Each fall, nurseries dig up these small trees and move them into cold storage, ready for planting in orchards the following spring.

Cosmic Crisp trees ready for planting at Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, WA. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Cosmic Crisp trees ready for planting at Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, WA. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

The first Cosmic Crisp apples will be available for sale in the fall of 2019. Within a few years, Washington's apple growers may know whether they bet they've placed on this new variety will pay off.

Apples put out for taste tests are (from left): Honeycrisp, Jazz, Gala, Red Delicious, and Cosmic Crisp. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Apples put out for taste tests are (from left): Honeycrisp, Jazz, Gala, Red Delicious, and Cosmic Crisp. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Article by Dan Charles, Northwest Public Radio

Washington Apple Growers Sink Their Teeth Into The New Cosmic Crisp

A worker takes a break after planting young Cosmic Crisp trees in an orchard near Wenatchee, WA. Photo by Dan Charles,NPR.

A worker takes a break after planting young Cosmic Crisp trees in an orchard near Wenatchee, WA. Photo by Dan Charles,NPR.

Get ready for a new kind of apple. It's called Cosmic Crisp, and farmers in Washington state, who grow 70 percent of the country's apples, are planting these trees by the millions. The apples themselves, dark red in color with tiny yellow freckles, will start showing up in stores in the fall of 2019.

Scott McDougall is one of the farmers who's making a big bet on Cosmic Crisp.

"It goes back to believing in the apple," he says.

"You believe?" I ask.

"I believe!" he says, and chuckles.

Planting has begun at one of his company's orchards near the city of Wenatchee. It's a spectacular site — a giant natural amphitheater in the hills above the Columbia River.

As we watch, a slow-moving tractor slices open the bare earth, and two men carefully lower delicate tree roots into the opening, one tree every three feet. These are among the first of about 400,000 Cosmic Crisp trees that McDougall and Sons expects to plant over the next few years. Across the state, 12 million of the trees have been ordered. That first wave of plantings will deliver about 5 million 40-pound boxes of Cosmic Crisp apples to grocery stores.

"Hitting 5 million boxes right away, that's never happened with any other variety that we've ever planted in Washington state," McDougall says.

These apples put out for a taste test are (from left): Honeycrisp,  Jazz, Gala, Red Delicious, and Cosmic Crisp. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR

These apples put out for a taste test are (from left): Honeycrisp,  Jazz, Gala, Red Delicious, and Cosmic Crisp. Photo by Dan Charles, NPR

For comparison, it took the popular variety Honeycrisp 20 years after it was introduced to reach that level of production.

Why this phenomenal success? First of all, the apple tastes great, even after months in storage, McDougall says. But that's not the only reason.

A lot of apple farmers in Washington have been looking to switch from the varieties that they've grown for decades — in particular, Red Delicious. That variety is still the single most widely grown apple in the state, but it's fallen out of favor with American consumers. Prices have sometimes fallen so low that growers simply discarded part of their harvest.

Many potential alternatives, though, have problems of their own. Honeycrisp is loved by consumers but is difficult to grow. Many other hot new apples, like Opal or Jazz, are only available to small clubs of growers.

Cosmic Crisp, though, is open to every farmer in Washington state. The tree is vigorous and produces lots of fruit. Also, it's ready for harvest at that same time as Red Delicious, which is a crucial consideration for big-time apple growers who are trying to coordinate the harvest of several different varieties.

"You've kind of got the best of all worlds," McDougall says.

Patent holder Bruce Barritt stops by the mother of all Cosmic Crisp trees. Cosmic Crisp was the result of a breeding project at Washington State University in the 1990s.  Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

Patent holder Bruce Barritt stops by the mother of all Cosmic Crisp trees. Cosmic Crisp was the result of a breeding project at Washington State University in the 1990s.  Photo by Dan Charles, NPR.

The man who's listed on a patent as the inventor of Cosmic Crisp, Bruce Barritt, drove five hours from Canada to see these trees go into the ground.

Barritt is 74 years old now. He takes pictures of the newly planted trees like a proud parent.

"They are my children," he says. "Just like your kids who are 18 years old, we don't know a lot about them yet. Four years from now, we'll know whether they're the real thing."

Two decades ago, when Barritt was working for Washington State University, he persuaded the university and the state's apple industry to pay for an effort to create new and tastier apple varieties.

"We knew that it would be about 20 years before we had anything of significance — if we were lucky!" he says.

Washington state hired a private company to handle the commercial launch of the new apple. They named it Cosmic Crisp because the apple's flecks of yellow reminded someone of stars in the sky. Photo by Bruce Baritt.

Washington state hired a private company to handle the commercial launch of the new apple. They named it Cosmic Crisp because the apple's flecks of yellow reminded someone of stars in the sky. Photo by Bruce Baritt.

He started the work of apple breeding — first taking pollen from blossoms of some trees and fertilizing the blossoms of others, creating thousands of new genetic combinations. Then he collected the apples that resulted from this cross-fertilization and grew new little trees from their seeds. He watched those trees produce their own apples, all different from one another. "Some green ones, some yellow ones, some red ones. Some little ones, some big ones," Barritt recalls.

Barritt says he'd spend days walking those rows, searching for a superior apple. Hundreds of times each day, he'd take a bite. "Your taste sensors, sugar and acid, kick in, and you'll either enjoy it or you won't. And then you spit it out," he says.

He doesn't remember the day in 1997 when he took a bite of an apple from the tree that was labeled WA 38. But it must have made a good impression because he and his colleagues kept it around.

It's still there, in a research orchard near Wenatchee. Most of the orchard is filled with rows of young seedlings, the latest products of Washington state's breeding program. At the far end of the orchard, though, stands the original WA 38 "mother tree."

Every one of the millions of Cosmic Crisp trees now growing in orchards and nurseries is a clone of this tree.

Barritt and his colleagues duplicated it the old-fashioned way, cutting buds from its branches and splicing, or grafting, those buds onto existing apple tree roots. The buds grew into new WA 38 trees.

For almost two decades, people in the apple industry studied those trees, tasting the apples. The more they learned, the more they liked it.

Tom Auvil, who worked for the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, says that when they took boxes of different varieties to events with apple growers, it was the box of WA 38 that got cleaned out. "This happened every year," he says. "We never bring any WA 38 home."

Auvil says the apple has that sought-after crisp, cracking sensation when you bite into it. It has sweetness and acid; almost a sensory overload for your tongue.

Washington state hired a private company to handle the commercial launch of the new apple. They named it Cosmic Crisp because the apple's flecks of yellow reminded someone of stars in the sky. Farmers finally got a chance to plant these trees in their own orchards this spring. For now, it's only available to farmers in Washington, since they helped support the breeding program that created it.

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.

Tom Auvil, who's been a Cosmic Crisp booster, calls the wave of orders "just an amazing level of investment. I just hope somebody doesn't drive up my driveway and say, 'You got me into this, now get me out of it!' "

A few years from now, when stores are full of Cosmic Crisp apples, those farmers will find out whether this was a smart bet.

Article by Northwest Public Radio (NPR)