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Apple growers try to move beyond boom and bust

Posted on May 9, 2016

National version on Marketplace / Original story on Northwest Public Radio

Grower Rob McCormick stoops to examine a knotty tree trunk in an apple orchard in Selah, Washington. “You see right here? These had been Red Delicious. Then we cut this down to a stump and grafted in the Galas.”

Washington growers are expecting a record crop of apples this year, but not of Red Delicious. Most American consumers, it seems, have moved on.

At the height of their popularity, Red Delicious accounted for more than two thirds of Washington apples. Today, the variety represents just over a quarter of the fruit grown here. Prices have fallen dramatically. Frequently now, old varieties like Red and Golden Delicious cost more to produce than you can sell them for.

“Red Delicious was introduced some time ago,” says David Nelley, director of apple and pear operations for apple marketing firm Oppenheimer. “And I dare say peoples’ expectations have risen, since then. The specifications that some of the retailers require from us have changed.”

Today’s apples are sweeter and more crisp. They have a longer shelf life. First there was Gala, then Fuji, and now, Honeycrisp. Last year, a box of Honeycrisp apples fetched nearly three times as much as a box of Red Delicious.

As more and more growers get in on the action, quality control becomes key. “There is a consumer who walks down to their store, picks up a Honeycrisp, and they may have one that was picked a little bit too early, or grown in the wrong place,” says Nelley. “So that person is gonna think, ‘Wow, that’s not what I remember a Honeycrisp tasted like.’” When that happens too many times, prices will fall.

Growers like Dave Allan are trying a new strategy to avoid this cycle of boom and bust. Stepping down from his pickup truck into an orchard south of Yakima, Allan plucks a rosy-hued apple from the tree. “Now, Pacific Rose is a big, sweet apple. What’s neat about this Pacific Rose,” Allan says, using a pocket knife to cut himself a slice, “is after storage, you get this kind of aroma that comes out of it.”

All these qualities make Allan think Pacific Rose could be the next Honeycrisp. But it’s not his only bet. Aided by DNA sequencing and advanced computing, the number of new varieties is exploding. Instead of waiting to taste a new apple only when a tree bears fruit, breeders can scour the genetic makeup of thousands of different seedlings for desirable characteristics. “You still have to taste the apple some time,” Allan says, “but you can eliminate a lot of losers.”

This approach has yielded apples like Pacific Rose, Jazz and Envy. They’re called “club varieties.” Breeders trademark their creations, and license the right to grow and sell them to hand-picked partners like Allan. Limiting production ensures you don’t grow more than you can sell, and it keeps the focus on consistently high-quality fruit.

That may be the hope, says McCormick. But the apple market has its own logic. “You do this long enough, and you realize it’s not the quality and quantity you produce,” he says.

McCormick says growing apples is like gambling: You put up a lot of money to plant new varieties, then, the timing has to be just right. For your bet to pay off, you need the apple retailers can’t get enough of, the one that will catch the eye of fickle consumers. “You can’t tell people what they want,” McCormick says with a shrug. “You either grow what they want, or find another business.”

For now, the apple business is still good enough for him.