Chuck and Myrna Nystrom, of Ocheda Orchard in Worthington, MN, are beating the odds in turning out patentable and marketable new apple varieties. “The University estimates that they’ll find one marketable variety per 20,000 seedlings,” explains Chuck. “Out of the 1000 seedlings we planted in 1993-94, we have one variety sold, three patented and being tested by a number of companies, and a fourth potential new variety is started in the patenting process, and we’re not finished yet our original seedlings.”
Getting new varieties into the marketplace can be a slow process, though. It took about 20 years from seedling to sale of the first new variety. A fruit packing company in Washington State has already committed to the new variety that has been sold in December of 2013 after 5 to 6 years of testing. CN121 is an open pollinated seedling from Honey Crisp that is firmer, sweeter, and ripens three weeks later, which spreads out the Honey Crisp harvest. This variety will not be sold to the general public through nursery catalogs. It has been sold to a large Washington based Fruit Company, which is willing to pay for the privilege of having exclusive rights to the variety. This gives them complete control of marketing of CN121.
Another patented variety is a somewhat flattened apple, with a shape reminiscent of the “Galaxy” peach that will be offered to other fruit companies in the Midwest. The shape is better when it is grown under Midwestern, rather than Washington, conditions. Also, grown in the Midwest, the variety has an interesting texture “something like a water chestnut,” explains Nystrom. “The flavor is nice and sweet and the orange-red apples have a good size. Picked here around mid-October, it holds well in common storage until the following July. “We have some great varieties,” Nystrom adds. “When our nursery partner comes to our orchard to taste them, he gets excited thinking about all the possibilities.” Nystrom’s nursery partner takes care of all the details and costs of patenting varieties. “It’s part of our deal,” says Nystrom. “If a company is showing a strong interest in a variety and in signing a contract to exclusive rights to it, the nursery will go ahead and patent it.” That process usually takes two years. The patent is good for 20 years. Nystrom’s contract stipulates that he will receive a royalty for each tree sold, and when the trees come of bearing age, he will also receive a royalty for each carton of the variety that is packed.
Nystrom originally started planting and testing apple seedling in hopes of finding something to replace Haralson, a variety common in the Midwest. “I liked the tartness, but not the flavor or the texture of HaralsonHaralson,” he explains. “I like apples that are a little on the tart side, and crisp and juicy, so those are qualities I look for.”
A surprising number of Nystrom’s varieties also have exceptional keeping qualities in common storage, storing in good shape until June and July in the back of an old refrigerator. He believes this trait in his open-pollinated seedlings could possibly come from the genetics of the “Keepsake” trees in his original orchard. Wherever the trait came from, it is a valuable one to have in his genetic mix. “We have fabulous genes here,” he adds, “It’s just a matter of getting the right ones together. None of this is rocket science. It simply is important to take good care of what you get.” Nystrom still plants 200 to 400 seeds a year. “I have seeds of the second generation of seedlings we found to be promising growing in the greenhouse now,” he explained. He also has seeds saved to plant next year from the third generation of promising seedlings.
Although most of the seeds Nystrom has planted have been open pollinated, he has also made some crosses. “A lot of my varieties are on the later side. This can be a problem here when winter cold comes early. So I’ve made some deliberate crosses with earlier varieties.”
One of these crosses has turned out to be quite good, one of the exciting parts of plant breeding. “Here in southwestern Minnesota, we can pick apples from this cross at the end of August in a normal year. For an early apple, this one is an exceptional keeper. We ate some from common storage last May that had been harvested the previous August, and they were still good.”
Nystrom is planning to send some wood from this cross to his nursery partner in Washington. “We also want to send some from the apples with unusual flavors that have popped up. One has the distinct flavor of blackberries.”
Other apples from his collection of seedlings have the flavor of vanilla and anise, and another that will probably not be salable had the mouth-puckering flavor of rhubarb.
Some of the tastiest apples will probably not make the grade for commercial production. “I have a yellow apple that lasts seven months in common storage,” proclaims Nystrom, “but it was rejected because of its finish.” Others were rejected because they were disease-prone, or an unattractive color, or too low acid, or had small fruit.
Nystrom’s keen eye and taste buds keep finding more and more varieties that can make the grade. His most recent apple to start the patent process is unusual-looking enough to stand out in a display, but also very beautiful. “The apple is large with a sweet/tart flavor. It has rosy red stripes over 90% of its skin, with a cream background.” The tree has the delightful trait of naturally thinning itself to the king fruit. There is never more than one fruit per spur. In addition, like many of Nystrom’s apples, this one is an exceptional keeper. “It can be stored in common storage until June, and you will still want to eat it,” he says.
On the surface, Nystrom’s orchard appears to be an “ordinary” orchard supplying a very busy, popular PYO, (it was like Grand Central Station the day we visited), and an equally popular on-farm market selling their picked fruit. “Most of my customers have no idea what else we are doing,” he confesses. “About 15% of the orchard is in experimental varieties now. If we need to expand, we own another 80 acres to the east that’s currently in corn. We could move the fence out and plant that in apples too.”
Some apple growers think that only the well-funded companies and the universities can successfully bring new varieties to the marketplace, unless a grower finds, say, a limb with a sport. Chuck Nystrom, with his 35 acre, 2nd generation orchard, and his insatiable curiosity and interest in apple flavors and textures, is living proof that individuals without special funding can also accomplish this feat.