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

Washington's new apple could be an industry game-changer

Cosmic Crisp apples. Photo by Karen Ducey for  Crosscut.

Cosmic Crisp apples. Photo by Karen Ducey for Crosscut.

Bye bye Red Delicious, there's a new apple in town: the Cosmic Crisp.

Bruce Barritt, Ph.D., is running around the apple orchard with his camera snapping pictures. He resembles a kind of horticultural Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks. He’s energetic, articulate and has a bounce for a guy in his 70s.

It is spring planting season and what’s taking place here in the hills east of Wenatchee is the elaborate choreography of putting in a new orchard. Multiple tractors are going back and forth opening rows of soil while workers drop small, twig-like trees into the furrows. Other workers follow behind covering the rootstock and trimming each tree as it’s planted. Hundreds of trees are planted in minutes. Watering systems and trellises follow.

It’s not uncommon to have a camera when an important birth is taking place, and make no mistake, this planting season is part of an elaborate gestation of a new apple variety that is designed to change the industry and consumer tastes. Barritt, emeritus professor of apple breeding at Washington State University, is the proud papa.

He has been working on this new apple for more than 20 years — since the mid-1990s — and now his dream is literally coming to fruition. “My kids don’t like me to say this but these are like my kids,” he says gesturing at the trees.

The patented name of the new apple is WA 38, but you will know it as the Cosmic Crisp. It is part of a huge bet the Washington apple industry is making to create a new variety that will supplant many of the old familiars, like the iconic Red Delicious. The Northwest, led by Washington, provides about two-thirds of America’s fresh apples and also nearly 75 percent of all U.S. apples, including those used for juice. The state’s apples also sell around the world. With funding from state growers and led by Barritt, WSU researchers have invented a new variety that, they believe, will change the face of the industry and win enthusiasm among the public with a combination of taste, texture and usability.

Just over 600,000 Cosmic Crips trees were in the ground in 2017, with some 7 million more being planted this year in 2018, and another 6 million next — a pace faster than expected. The new apple will be available to consumers in the fall of 2019 — it takes about two years for a new tree to bear fruit.

Barritt says growers will invest some $500 million planting the Cosmic Crisp over the next few years. Kathryn Grandy, director of marketing and operations for Proprietary Variety Management (PVM), a Yakima company tasked with introducing the apple to consumers, tells me it’s “the largest launch of a produce item” ever in the U.S.

According to PVM, Cosmic Crisp will begin to replace Galas, Fujis, Cameos, Braeburns and other varieties, including the Red and Golden Delicious.

Casey Corr, who just retired as managing editor of the industry publication Good Fruit Grower, says the apple has to be an instant success when it hits the supermarket. “It’s gotta be like the new iPhone,” Corr says.

Bruce Barrit examines nursery trees in the McDougall & Sons Inc. orchards in Wenatchee, WA.

Bruce Barrit examines nursery trees in the McDougall & Sons Inc. orchards in Wenatchee, WA.

The comparison seems apt. The Cosmic Crisp will reshape the apple market. It has been designed to be consumer, as well as grower friendly. It is a cross between two apple varieties, the popular Honeycrisp and the Enterprise. Its name derives from focus group folks who found that the little pores — lenticels — on the skin of the apple looked like “a starry sky” in the cosmos. It’s a good looking apple, important in markets but also important to those of us for whom the apple is a symbol. The apple is our state’s official fruit after all.

Rows of Cosmic Crisp nursery trees in the foreground dot the landscape in the McDougall & Sons Inc. orchards in Wenatchee, WA.

Rows of Cosmic Crisp nursery trees in the foreground dot the landscape in the McDougall & Sons Inc. orchards in Wenatchee, WA.

The Cosmic Crisp is big, mostly red and very juicy. Barritt says from the beginning the breeding program was designed with the consumer in mind. The apple market has changed over the years. Once staple varieties like Red and Golden Delicious were problematic — short shelve lives, bland flavors — and they’ve lost some popularity (sales peaked in 1994). Those varieties still sell and in some overseas markets like Japan, where tastes run to the familiar, the Red Delicious still is regarded as the ideal of what an apple should be, mostly due to its iconic shape and deep red color. Personally, though, I have never liked it. Other varieties have more flavor, better texture and are easier to grow. For those reasons some believe the Delicious is “obsolete.”

Scientist Kate Evans takes a bite of a Cosmic Crisp.

Scientist Kate Evans takes a bite of a Cosmic Crisp.

U.S. consumers like to be able to choose from more varieties these days. Many consumers, especially millennials, are willing to pay a premium for taste. That’s been the secret of Honeycrisp’s success — a good looking and tasting apple that commands a higher price. Part of the reasons for that cost: They are hard to grow and bruise easily.

The Cosmic Crisp has a number of advantages. It is slow to turn brown when cut. I had half of one in the car for six hours and it hadn’t even started to turn brown when I got it home. It keeps longer after harvest. Picked in September, the Cosmic Crisp in cold storage can last a year, extending its lifespan and reducing waste. It’s a 365-day-a-year apple designed to thrive in Eastern Washington’s apple friendly soils and climate, unlike varieties brought from overseas or the East Coast.

Barritt says that while benefits for growers are important, it’s taste that will make or break the variety. To that end, I visited WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee where I had a chance to discuss the Cosmic Crisp with Barritt and his successor overseeing research, Kate Evans, Ph.D.

We went down into a basement lab where vials filled with fluid from various Cosmic Crisps was being tested for acidity, which “provides the character of the apple,” says Barritt. It plays a key role in how any apple tastes, and learning to get the proper balance under differing growing conditions is important. Evans continues to conduct research on test trees in order to compile a grower’s manual for how to produce the optimum Cosmic Crisps.

The researchers take a batch of Cosmic Crisp apples out of the box. Barritt and Evans give some instruction on how to taste an apple. “Taste,” it turns out, is not just on the tongue. How does an apple sound when you bite into it? Does it crunch? Does the bite snap off in your mouth? What’s the texture like — smooth or mealy? Is the skin too thick? Is it juicy or dry? Taste involves all the sense before you even get to sweet or sour, the blend of flavors that make up an apple.

The WA 38 designation means it was the WSU team’s 38th attempt to get a new variety. Coming up with the perfect apple takes time. I was fully prepared to be disappointed — the industry hype and catering to mass tastes made me a little suspicious. While it’s not a GMO apple like the Arctic, you’re still talking about something created by scientists and commercial growers who are planting cloned trees.

But the Cosmic Crisp ticked every box: good looking, with a nice crunch and powerful snap, a beautiful sweet-tart balance, tons of juice trickling down the chin. I wasn’t overwhelmed by, say, hints of blueberry or a floral nose — the kinds of complexities wine tasters go on about. But it was one of the best apples I’ve ever eaten. In fact, my sample was the essence of apple.

People will continue to have their brand loyalties — I have talked to colleagues who’ve tasted the Cosmic Crisp and swear they will not give up their Fujis or Granny Smiths, but they are in the minority. WSU’s Evans is a tad nervous. The apple represents “a lot of trees, a lot of fruit for a new apple variety.” Growers are a little concerned with flooding the market as so many new Crisp orchards come on line. Will there be a glut? Will consumers embrace the new breed?

Alex Goke, a research assistant, polishes some Cosmic Crisp apples at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, WA.

Alex Goke, a research assistant, polishes some Cosmic Crisp apples at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, WA.

The Washington apple industry has come together on marketing and backing the Cosmic Crisp. From a competitive business standpoint, they’ll have a 10-year head start on other growers. WSU owns the intellectual property rights to WA 38 and Washington growers and taxpayers funded much of the research. State growers will have a 10-year exclusive to license and grow the apples in North America. WSU will seek patents in other countries, in the expectation that the variety will eventually spread. In other words, this apple is a unique, proprietary brand. If it catches on, it will be a boon for its home state.

The launch is not without a hitch, however. WSU and one of its partners, Phytelligence, a company founded by another WSU researcher that has a system for speeding up crop production, are involved in court battle over the rights to propagate Cosmic Crisps. The dispute is currently in federal court. Phytelligence says it wants to speed up the propagation process; WSU maintains the company violated its contract with the university and its intellectual property rights. The dispute doesn’t seem to be holding up the apple’s debut, however.

Barritt, who could not comment on the suit, is still feeling that new parent glow, and says he has little fear about the debut. He believes they have covered their research bases. The growers know what they’re doing and have deep experience adapting to market and growing conditions. The commercial apple business in Washington dates back to the 1880s; the first orchard was planted by the Hudson Bay Company in the 1820s, and one of those trees still lives and produces fruit — a fitting symbol of the industry’s durability.

Looking out over a vast orchard of his “children,” the professor says he feels the pride of any inventor about to see his creation go to market. “My employer,” he says, “was the people of the state of Washington.” He believes his invention will be rewarding for the people of the state. “I’m not anxious,” Barritt says.

Standing in the Wenatchee orchard he’s excited. Looking at the newly planted hills covered with thousands of Cosmic Crisp trees he says, “I see nothing on the horizon that will prevent its success.”

My taste buds agree.

A sign welcomes visitors to Wenatchee, WA.

A sign welcomes visitors to Wenatchee, WA.

Article by Knute Berger, & Video by Eric Keto, KCTS9 & Crosscut

Ag Weather Impacts - Apple Pollination

Dennis: The bees were a buzzin this past week as nearly perfect pollination weather was at hand. Yesterday, I talked with Mike Bush, long time WSU extension specialist in Yakima about the apple crop.

Mike: Based on the weather forecasts and the weather we’ve had in the past week, there has been a lot of bee activity and anything that is in bloom at this time is going to be well set.

Dennis: After the fruit is set, growers will be monitoring for pests and disease potential:

Mike: Those growers that are in the post bloom stage have probably already put out their mating disruption ties and within a week or two the growers will start putting out their sprays for coddling moth.

Dennis: Over the past 20 years, Mike has seen apple varieties evolve. HoneyCrisp has risen to be the one of the most popular at the fruit stands followed by Fuji and Gala, but there is a new variety that WSU has on limited release:

Mike: Cosmic Crisp, it does have Honey Crisp in its lineage, does have the good unique flavor that Honey Crisp does, except sweeter, it stores well, does not brown quite as fast.

Dennis: So be looking for Cosmic Crisp in the next few years. My Thanks to WSU’s Mike Bush.

Article by Dennis Hull, Ag Info

Cosmic Crisp™ Gets Formal Introduction at NW Hort Expo

On day two of the 2016 Washington State Tree Fruit Association Annual Meeting & Horticulture Expo, KOHO’s Chris Hansen had a chance to catch up with the scientist who is largely responsible for the genesis of the new apple variety Cosmic Crisp. Kate Evans is a Professor of Horticulture at the Washington State University Extension Center in Wenatchee. Professor Evans said although much of the legwork to bring the Cosmic Crisp to market has been finished, there are literally still a few roots to put down before consumers will find it widely available on store produce displays.

Interview by Chris Hansen, KOHO 101


Click the button below to listen to the KOHO 101 interview with Kate Evans, Professor of Horticulture at WSU Extensions Center in Wenatchee, WA.