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 Plantings Beat Estimate

About 1 million more Cosmic Crisp apple trees are being planted this spring than were estimated in December. Some growers worry about oversupply.

More Cosmic Crisp apple trees are being planted this spring in Washington state than expected, heightening concerns about possible overproduction.

At the Washington State Tree Fruit Association meeting last December, Lynnell Brandt, president of Proprietary Variety Management, estimated Cosmic Crisp plantings at 5.8 million trees for the spring of 2018. The company was hired by Washington State University to help manage commercialization of the new state apple.

Now with the 2018 planting season three-fourths done, Brandt said this season’s tally will end at 6.7 million to 6.8 million Cosmic Crisp trees planted. And that accounts for losses reported by some nurseries from trees that died when their bud grafting onto rootstock failed, he said.

Willow Drive Nursery, near Ephrata, experienced about 37 percent mortality on its 2018 Cosmic Crisp and other nurseries were probably close to that, said Jim Adams, co-owner of Willow Drive.

“We don’t know what caused it. We’re trying to figure it out. Roots grew fine but didn’t transfer to the variety. Buds died,” Adams said.

Willow Drive grew 1 million Cosmic Crisp trees for 2018 but will grow 150,000 in 2019 because growers previously ordered fewer Cosmic Crisp and more of proprietary varieties for 2019, he said.

Other nurseries will make up for Willow Drive’s decline, and the best guess remains that 5.2 million more Cosmic Crisp will be planted in 2019, Brandt said.

A total of 629,000 trees were planted in 2017, the first year of commercial planting, he said.

Brandt said he expects plantings to drop to 2 million trees per year in 2020 and beyond.

He estimated just under 200,000, 40-pound boxes of Cosmic Crisp will go to grocery stores from the 2019 crop, 2 million for 2020, 6.2 million for 2021, 11.3 million for 2022, 15 million in 2023, 18 million in 2024, 20 million in 2025 and 22 million in 2026.

In comparison, Red Delicious peaked at 61.4 million boxes in 1994 and remains No. 1 at about 34 million. It’s taken Gala more than 20 years to reach 33 million and Honeycrisp 10 years to reach 12 million.

The fast ramp up of Cosmic Crisp makes a lot of growers nervous, Adams said.

“I hear from a lot of growers across the state. There’s a lot of nervousness, reservations about the sheer volume,” he said.

Brandt said oversupply will be countered by Cosmic Crisp being a better apple, replacing older strains of Red Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Golden Delicious, Braeburn, Cameo and Jonagold.

“I’m not sure everyone has a grasp on this,” Brandt said. “It will be a launch different than any other. Immediate critical mass. It opens a whole lot of avenues because of that notoriety and brand recognition and promises to the consumer that will be utilized like never before.”

The industry will work together using social media to directly reach consumers at limited costs, he said.

“Because it’s a brand it must have a marketing approach, not just a sales approach. The brand will become of paramount importance,” Brandt said.

An industry marketing committee, including five Crisp marketing entities that handle 80 percent or more of the state’s apple marketing, is making progress toward a marketing plan and has “a lot more work to be done over the next couple of years,” Brandt said.

Article by Dan Wheat, Capital Press

Growers pin big hopes for Cosmic Crisp

Washington apple growers planted 630,000 new Cosmic Crisp apple trees this spring and will plant an estimated 10 million more trees over the next two years to revolutionize variety offerings of the nation’s largest apple-producing state.

Chris Anderson of Manson, Wash., on June 9 with the Cosmic Crisp™ brand apples trees he planted in April and May. He spent about $20,000 on 2,200 trees and hopes they bring him good returns. About 50 growers, selected in a drawing ,also planted Cosmic Crisp™ brand trees this spring. Photo by Dan Wheat.

Chris Anderson of Manson, Wash., on June 9 with the Cosmic Crisp™ brand apples trees he planted in April and May. He spent about $20,000 on 2,200 trees and hopes they bring him good returns. About 50 growers, selected in a drawing ,also planted Cosmic Crisp™ brand trees this spring. Photo by Dan Wheat.

MANSON, Wash. — Chris Anderson is in his 37th year of operating a small apple orchard once owned by his father on the north shore of Lake Chelan.

He’s among more than 50 Washington growers selected in a drawing for this spring’s first planting of the Cosmic Crisp, a new apple variety that industry leaders hope will usher in a new era.

It’s a $275 million to $500 million risk on an apple the industry hopes consumers will love. Plans call for it to replace the Red Delicious as the new Washington state apple and be the foundation for higher and steadier financial returns for decades to come.

Apples are big business in Washington state. They are the top agricultural commodity, grossing $2.4 billion annually. About 65 percent of the apples grown in the U.S. come from Washington orchards.

Cosmic Crisp™ brand trees near East Wenatchee, Wash., on June 9. These were planted a year ago by Van Well Nursery and are certified mother trees. Cuttings from them will be taken each fall for use in budding new Cosmic Crisp™ brand trees onto rootstock. Photo by Dan Wheat.

Cosmic Crisp™ brand trees near East Wenatchee, Wash., on June 9. These were planted a year ago by Van Well Nursery and are certified mother trees. Cuttings from them will be taken each fall for use in budding new Cosmic Crisp™ brand trees onto rootstock. Photo by Dan Wheat.

For three weeks in April and May, Anderson laid out neat rows and hauled trees and fertilizer, helping his three workers plant by hand 2,200 Cosmic Crisp trees on a little over 2 acres. Elsewhere in Central Washington, other growers planted up to 20,000 trees apiece, mostly by machine.

Anderson is optimistic about the new apple.

“It’s something being heavily promoted, sounded like it might be fun. And, yes, I’m looking for better returns,” said Anderson, 64, who with his wife, Sally, runs the orchard.

Anderson tore out Fuji apple trees last fall to make room for his Cosmic Crisp.

“Fuji are very late and I don’t have a long enough growing season. There have been years I picked them in the snow and years they froze on the trees,” Anderson said.

Unprecedented plan

This rapid roll-out marks a first for the industry.

Ricardo Santacruz reaches for a Cosmic Crisp™ limb of buds as Eduardo Morales gets ready to wrap the bud. They are part of a crew of 45 budding Cosmic Crisp™ buds onto rootstock trees at Willow Drive Nursery near Ephrata, Wash., on Sept. 12, 2016. Photo by Dan Wheat.

Ricardo Santacruz reaches for a Cosmic Crisp™ limb of buds as Eduardo Morales gets ready to wrap the bud. They are part of a crew of 45 budding Cosmic Crisp™ buds onto rootstock trees at Willow Drive Nursery near Ephrata, Wash., on Sept. 12, 2016. Photo by Dan Wheat.

“The 5 million is an extremely high number for any one variety of apple tree to be planted in any given year in the state or nationwide,” said Neal Manly, managing partner of Regal Fruit, an apple breeding and variety management company in Ephrata, Wash.

According to Manly’s survey of the state’s nurseries, 40 percent of the trees planted next year will be Cosmic Crisp. Only Red Delicious and Honeycrisp reached 40 percent of annual plantings in the past and Gala peaked at 25 percent.

Newly planted trees produce few apples in their first two years, so Anderson and other growers will knock them off early so the tree’s energy will go toward growth.

Lynnell Brandt, president of Proprietary Variety Management, a Yakima, Wash., company WSU hired to help manage the commercialization of Cosmic Crisp, estimates that nearly 200,000, 40-pound boxes of Cosmic Crisp apples will debut in U.S. stores from the 2019 crop. That will jump to 1.9 million boxes in 2020, 5 million in 2021 and 9 million in 2022.

At the Washington State Tree Fruit Association meeting last December, Robert Kershaw, president of Domex Superfresh Growers in Yakima, said such an accelerated ramp-up has never before been tried. He called it “insanity” and a “gamble” that could end in reward or failure and said it would take the whole industry pulling together to write the Cosmic Crisp success story.

West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, said the fastest switch in the consumption of varieties will happen over a five-year span that will “blow people’s hair back.” In the last two seasons, prices for Red Delicious and Gala have crashed because of too much volume and loss of consumer popularity.

Brandt anticipates Cosmic Crisp will replace large amounts of Reds and Gala in relatively short order. Older strains of Fuji, Golden Delicious, Braeburn, Cameo and Jonagold and even Honeycrisp numbers will diminish, he said.

The new mix will be Cosmic Crisp and proprietary varieties, along with some Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp.

Ricardo Sanchez notches a rootstock stem for a bud from the Cosmic Crisp™ limbs in his left hand. Eduardo Morales, behind him, wraps the bud in plastic at Willow Drive Nursery near Ephrata, Wash., on Sept. 12, 2016. Photo by Dan Wheat.

Ricardo Sanchez notches a rootstock stem for a bud from the Cosmic Crisp™ limbs in his left hand. Eduardo Morales, behind him, wraps the bud in plastic at Willow Drive Nursery near Ephrata, Wash., on Sept. 12, 2016. Photo by Dan Wheat.

“We are hopeful Cosmic Crisp can be the new flagship of the industry. We have that hope because it’s such a good apple and because the entire industry will be working to promote the brand in a very positive light and the industry has some exclusivity in the North American market, which can enhance the focus,” Brandt said. Washington growers will be the sole source of the new apple in North America for the first decade.

Kershaw heads a committee of most of the state’s major tree fruit companies advising Brandt on marketing.

“It’s not without conflict but conflict is good to sort out all the issues and have a good healthy debate and to make sure we are looking at everything from all angles and perspectives,” Kershaw said.

The committee has reached a consensus on every main decision, including uniform packaging. Grading standards are next and will need to be tightly managed to ensure a successful launch, he said.

Financial hopes

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Honeycrisp is a big money-maker for the industry, but its margins have begun to narrow as volume has increased. It’s common for Honeycrisp to sell at wholesale in the $50-$70 per box range while most other unmanaged varieties do well to reach $30. Break-even for orchards is typically about $17 a box.

For Cosmic Crisp, “the expectation is Honeycrisp pricing, but the consumer will decide. If they sell well at high prices, prices will stay high. If they don’t, prices will need to come down to generate more momentum,” Kershaw said.

Red Delicious, the volume king for 82 years, peaked at 61.4 million boxes in 1994 but was still at 39.5 million boxes this year, almost one-third of the state’s apple production.

While the volume of Red Delicious has held up, its price hasn’t. It was selling for $11 to $14.90 per box for standard grade, medium size on June 7. In 2014, it bottomed out at $8 per box. At those prices, growers make no money and packer-shipper-marketers, who get their cut first, make little to nothing.

Grower costs and packing, shipping and marketing costs all vary, but Anderson, the Manson grower, said on a $30 box of fruit the grower makes one-third and on a $50 box the grower can make two-thirds.

Even the popular Honeycrisp has not performed well for him.

“I have not done well with Honeycrisp,” he says. “My packouts are poor.”

Cosmic Crisp should provide better returns than Honeycrisp because production costs will be lower and storage and packouts — after cull apples are taken out — will be better, Brandt said. He believes the new apple will top 30 million boxes annually.

If those numbers hold true and the price stays high, the payoff for the industry would be impressive.

In round numbers, just a 10 million-box crop of Cosmic Crisp that sells for $30 per box would gross $300 million; at $50 per box, the crop would gross $500 million.

WSU will get a royalty of 4.75 percent of every box that sells for more than $20. On a $500 million crop, 4.75 percent is $23.7 million. There’s also a $1 royalty on every tree sold for planting. Trees generally cost $9, including the royalty. On 10 million trees sold, the royalty is $10 million.

Of those total royalties, around 20 percent will go for commercialization costs including patenting and Proprietary Variety Management’s fee, said James Moyer, associate dean of research at WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. Neither he nor PVM’s Brandt would disclose the management fee.

Of the remaining royalties, 10 percent will go to the WSU Office of Commercialization; 10 percent will go to the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences; 30 percent will be shared by the breeders; and 50 percent will go to WSU plant breeding programs with a majority earmarked for apple breeding, Moyer said.

“We’re discussing ways in which we could create an endowment or some other vehicle to keep the apple breeding program secure for many years to come,” Moyer said.

“We are extremely proud of the breeding program and the excitement it has generated in the industry and we are encouraged by how the industry has come together to cooperate and guide us in the licensing, marketing and developing standards,” Moyer said.

Article by Dan Wheat, Capital Press