Is redder better?
Without the yellow background color, redder Gala strains will be harder to pick at the right maturity, say industry members.
Gale Gala is one of more than 30 Gala strains.
In the last two decades, Gala apples have taken the world by storm, finding favor around the globe with consumers and growers. But as redder and redder Gala strains are planted, is the tree fruit industry repeating Red Delicious history?
Gala is the second most popular variety produced in Washington State; nationwide, the variety is in the top five. In 2008, Washington growers produced more than 20 million boxes of Gala, second only to Red Delicious, which yielded 34 million boxes that year, according to industry data.
The cultivar, developed by New Zealand fruit grower J.H. Kidd and named in 1962, has proved to be very prone to color mutations. Royal Gala was one of the first sports discovered by another New Zealand fruit grower, soon to be followed by two other widely planted New Zealand sports, Imperial Gala and Regal Gala.
Today, more than 30 Gala strains are available around the world, with some promising to have 90 to 100 percent red colora marked difference from the original Gala (Kidd's D-8) that has orange-red stripes over a cream-yellow background.
Gala was the most popular variety planted in Washington State from 1996 to 2004, according to a survey of nursery tree sales conducted by Tree Top, Inc. From 2005 to 2008, the variety was the second most planted.
However, Gala declined from 18 percent of total tree sales in 2007 to 15 percent of trees budded for planting in 2010, Tree Top's Lindsay Buckner reports in the 2008 Apple and Pear Variety Production and Planting Trends in Washington State. "Growers may be backing off on Gala plantings today, over concerns that the variety may be overplanted, with sales of over 20 million boxes sold in 2008," he said. "Tree sales are experiencing a shift to new, higher coloring strains. A number of older Gala orchards are being replaced with these newer strains."
Jim Doornink, who is planting new strains of Gala, is an example of a tree fruit grower in the Gala replacement mode. Even though the Wapato, Washington, orchardist doesn't think the newer strains are as good, he said that it's difficult to deliver the color that the market requires with the older strains. "I think it's entirely the wrong way to go. I think the best-tasting Galas are the thin-skinned Royal and Imperial Galas that we started with."
It's a difficult position for growers with older Gala strains. They must decide whether to take on the high costs of renovating an orchard to stay competitive or stay with the older selection and risk losing premium-grade prices.
A new orchard requires an investment of $10,000 to $20,000 per acre and takes about seven years before paying off, said John Verbrugge, who is in charge of orchard operations at Valley Fruit in Wapato. "You want that orchard to last, and not just for five years because someone found a redder variety. That's what drives me crazy with new varieties. Is it better because it's redder?" he asked.
Orchardists must stay updated and replant outdated varieties, like the Imperial Gala, so that they have competitive product, but constantly changing varieties does not encourage profitability.
"Constantly changing varieties is going to kill us and lead to the demise of the farmer," he said. "We can't afford it."
Uneven maturity during harvest has been a problem with Gala since its beginning. The original Gala required four to six picks by New Zealand growers, which is one of the reasons that higher-colored strains were propagated, reported researchers in a 1990 Fruit Varieties Journal article (now called the Journal of American Pomological Society).
Redder Gala strains bring more money for color, but also can help growers save on harvest costs. Harvest of Imperial Gala traditionally starts out as an hourly wage for the first pick and then later shifts to piece rate. Reducing the number of picks also reduces harvest costs.
If color sports of Gala result in fewer picks, does it lead to greater inconsistencies in eating quality?
Tom Auvil, research horticulturist for the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, thinks that highly colored varieties allow growers to become sloppy. When you have high-coloring varieties, a percentage of fruit picked are immature, a percentage are overripe, and a relative small portion of the fruit is of the appropriate dessert quality at harvest, he said.
The ability of the industry to deliver an unsatisfactory product increases as the color factor becomes greater, he explains.
Auvil noted that last season some of the larger growers in the lower Yakima Valley did a single-pick Gala harvest, even with some of the older Gala selections. They accepted splits on the more mature fruit and walked away from the lower colored 30 to 40 percent of the crop.
Dave Allan of Allan Brothers, Inc., a Yakima, Washington, tree fruit grower-packer, said growers have an economic incentive to plant the newer strains. "Every grower out there is going to plant a redder Gala," he said. "No one's going to be a purist and not plant a redder Gala."
Allan believes red Gala to be just as good as the non-red. "But the thing is, Gala need to be picked two to three times, and if you get a lot of color on them, it's going to be more difficult to pick at the right time," Allan explained. "Background color is the way to tell when to pick. We're going to have poor quality Galas going forward."
Nurseries respond to what their customers want, said Dena Perleberg-Ybarra of Columbia Basin Nursery in Quincy, Washington. Tree fruit growers prefer the higher-colored strains of Gala, as evident in tree sales and forward contracts.
"The Gala selections that are out there now are very good quality," she said, adding that growers have more choices now than they did five or ten years ago. Gala are known for throwing good and bad sports, and some older strains have reverted back to the original, she noted.
As orchard blocks become unprofitable, growers change them over to newer varieties or strains, she said, but some older blocks of Gala that are still making money are still in the ground.
The demand for higher-colored strains is driven by grower returns, she noted. As long as growers are paid by color, they will continue to plant varieties that consistently produce color. However, she does foresee a slowing down in the release of new Gala strains in the future.