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

A New Approach for a New Apple

Two-thirds of the nation’s apples come from Washington State at a value of nearly $2.4 billion.

The state’s industry is taking a unified approach to introduce a new variety they believe is out of this world.

Two hundred apple growers and industry representatives have come to a field day in Prosser, Washington, to get a glimpse of an apple most have already committed to growing, processing and distributing. Its hybrid name is WA38, but the public will know it as Cosmic Crisp. 

Ric Valicoff, Valkicoff Fruit Company: “That apple is extremely grower friendly. It sets itself up well in the tree, on either spindle, wall trellis, V trellis, what have you. It’s going to be way easier to deal with than the Honeycrisp, and a way better keeper.”

The rollout of Cosmic Crisp is a first for the apple industry, in that it mimics the introduction of many packaged foods. Apples are introduced to growers every year by university research farms, but this is the first time an apple has been taken through taste tests and focus groups before introduction. The audience data assured processors and wholesalers there is a market for the new apple. 

Cristy Warnock, Proprietary Variety Management:  “When a grower is deciding to grow a new variety, they can be only so comfortable with taking on a huge amount of risk with a new investment. The good thing about this situation is that the risk gets spread out through a whole industry. So more emphasis can be put into everyone collaborating and having their own orchards of this new variety, so that there will be a huge amount of volume, rather than a small amount trickling into the market over time.” 

The apple breeding program at Washington State University developed WA38 over twenty years, winnowing down an initial group of 40 favorable varieties to two that had commercial potential: WA2 and WA38. A crunchy and juicy apple, WA38 was more grower friendly than Honeycrisp, which is prone to rot, mildew and sunburn in the field, and possesses a thin skin that leads to punctures and bruising during processing. Leaving half of a Honeycrisp crop in the orchard is a common occurrence. Cosmic Crisp avoids most of these issues, and brings new advantages to the industry. Outside the orchard, the apple stores for 12 months without special measures like a low-oxygen atmosphere, and is extremely slow to brown once cut. 

Kate Evans, Washington State University: “So from a consumer perspective it's really a great eating apple, you know. Ultimately that is what the consumer wants. Most consumers key in on textural traits initially. Cosmic Crisp is crisp. Obviously, hence the name. It’s also extremely juicy. It’s one of those really nice apples that gives you that fantastic mouthfeel and the refreshing kind of juiciness that you get with an ultra crisp apple type.”
Dozens of varieties, some heirloom, some hybrid, are grown by individual orchards for the specialized apple market for audiences that prefer something unique. The potential of Cosmic Crisp encouraged the researchers at Washington State University to bring the entire supply chain to the table for the rollout of the new apple variety.

Cristy Warnock, Proprietary Variety Management:  “We’ve created a marketing advisory board made up of all of the main sales and marketing groups. Once they got on board, they felt compelled to get behind this.”

Exclusivity helped bring growers on board. Cosmic Crisp will only be grown in Washington for 10 years to give growers time to recoup their investment before the variety goes global. The apple breeding program at Washington State will see a revenue stream to fund future research by charging $1 per tree start and 4.5 percent of the wholesale sales of Cosmic Crisp apples grown in the state of Washington. 

Kate Evans, Washington State University: “Cosmic Crisp harvests in what is typically Red Delicious season. So many growers have been looking for something that would replace Red Delicious in terms of their harvest portfolio.”

It is expected that Red Delicious trees, a variety that sees 85% of the US crop exported internationally, will be the first to be replaced with Cosmic Crisp with other older varieties like Courtland and Braeburn to also lose acreage. The goal is to join Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp as the apples Americans most consume. Grower and packer interest is expected to make the rollout of Cosmic Crisp the fastest that the industry has ever seen. The last major apple variety to be introduced, Pink Lady, required 15 years to reach 1 million trees in the ground. Cosmic Crisp is expected to double that number in only two years. Interest in Cosmic Crisp has been so strong that a form of lottery was held to parcel out the initial tree starts. Few orchards got as many as they wanted, but most got enough for a dedicated section of their orchard. Roughly 700,000 trees will be grafted in 2017, with another 1.3 million in 2018, making it the largest apple tree introduction ever.  Cosmic Crisp apples should begin to appear in West Coast markets in 2019, and expand nationally in 2020. 

Ric Valicoff, Valicoff Fruit Company: “If you want to talk about the old Red Delicious and where that went, it’s sellability through the state of Washington back 30 years ago, this is the new Red Delicious but 10 times better.” 

Growing the better apple won’t come cheap. Converting an orchard to a new variety like Cosmic Crisp can cost $35,000 per acre. Using high density trellis systems, less than 1500 acres statewide will be needed to start 2 million trees, but at a cost to growers of over $40 million dollars. 

Time will tell if consumers will find room for this new apple in their shopping carts.

Article By Peter Tubbs, Market to Market