by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
GENEVA, NY — “Variety is the spice of life” as the saying goes, and it’s the key to profitability in the apple growing business — if you develop and grow the right varieties. Susan Brown, professor horticulture section at Cornell University, presented “Adventures in Apple Breeding and Genetics” recently at Cornell in Ithaca, NY and via videoconference at Cornell’s Geneva Experiment Station in Geneva, NY.
“I have one of the best jobs I can think of: creating something never before seen,” Brown said. “It may be the best thing ever, or a complete disaster, yet you learn from both.”
She likened her apples to “children” — likely because of the time and care she has invested in them. Since her “offspring” affect a sizeable percent of the state’s largest industry — agriculture — the work of apple breeders and researchers is pretty important. Of New York’s 7,300,000 farmed acres, (according to the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets), 40,000 are in apples, exceeding its acreage of grapes (37,000), sweet corn (26,600) or potatoes (14,800).
Brown said apples are “incredibly diverse” and shared a few of her experiences in apple breeding.
“Apple breeding often leads to interesting outcomes,” Brown said.
She feels breeders have not yet scratched the surface of the possibilities apples hold.
Brown included on her apple gene list albino, chlorophyll deficiency, deciduous calyx, woolly apple aphid, rust resistance, malic acid content, pollen lethals, anthocyanin of leaves and purple pigmentation, incompatibility alleles, and apple scab resistance. Choosing the right combination is important because “consumer satisfaction is critical,” Brown said.
She listed the most important traits consumers seek: crispness, texture, flavor, juiciness, sugar and acid. “However, consistency of quality is essential,” Brown added.
Cornell University boasts one of the oldest apple breeding programs in the nation, one of the largest in the world and has 66 named apple varieties. The program integrates breeding, genetics and genomics.
“Multi-disciplinary, we benefit from collaboration,” Brown said.
Cornell Cooperative Extension is actively involved as well. By cross-breeding different varieties, breeders attempt to obtain desirable traits. Brown said this differs from genetically modified organisms. Apple breeders aren’t creating “Frankenfood” because “they don’t have genes outside of apples,” Brown said. She added that it’s important for consumers to understand this. She encouraged all the attendees to take a course on explaining the science behind apple genetics to the general population to help excite them about the traits breeders are seeking to instill in new apple varieties and understand how apple breeding and variety development works.
Consumers respond better to varieties that are visually appealing and identifiable. Effective marketing has helped launch new varieties, though availability also creates demand. Brown said Honeycrisp was never marketed, but its availability at retail locations drove its sales. Still, she added that additional funds for marketing and promotion would help the industry.
For some patented and trademarked apple varieties, only a certain number of growers are permitted to grow them, such as SnapDragon™. Planting 900 acres to SnapDragon helped ensure sufficient supply.
Brown said SnapDragon trees produce attractive fruit that is plentiful, crisp, juicy, sweet and mild. With Honeycrisp parentage, SnapDragon provides the flavor consumers want without many production problems. “Storage disorders similar to Honeycrisp are being studied,” Brown said.
RubyFrost™, another newer variety with limited growers, appeals to shoppers seeking a tart apple. “It’s had great consumer reaction in tests,” Brown said. She added that the apple exhibits low flesh browning after it’s been cut, which would be a boon for serving as apple slices in institutional settings
Standing out with a unique apple is very important. In New York, the competition is stiff. With 674 apple growers in the Empire State, New York ranks second in the nation for apple production.
“If you find yourself researching any plant or organism, understanding the range of materials available, how to phenotype properly at the right stage and minimizing variation — within fruit cluster, age of tree, rootstock, stage of development and selection — is as important as the best genotyping available,” Brown said. “It’s the old computer programmer’s saying, ‘garbage in equals garbage out.’ This view is often minimized or ignored.”
She said knowing material is useful because “you may have access to novel genetic resources to study; often ‘oddities’ are not reported in the literature but are kept in the mind of the researcher. Ask questions.”
Fruit size represents an important gene to consider, as is reduced browning, for most consumers. Higher vitamin C content in apples can help provide more nutritious apples for school lunches and fresh-serve locations.
As another example of knowing one’s market, Brown said although 70 percent of the market prefers sweet apples and only 30 percent enjoys tart apples, “If consumers are exposed to something outside their comfort zone, they may like it.” That’s why availability and marketing are so important to the apple industry.