Resistant varieties gain popularity
Interest in disease-resistant apple varieties is gaining with the rise in organic production.
French nurseryman Benoit Escande has taken a new disease-resistant apple variety called Juliet and run with it. He is the world licensee for the Juliet apple and is president of an association called Friends of Juliet that is promoting the variety as an organic apple for children.
Juliet (formerly known as Co-op 43) is from the cooperative PRI (Purdue-Rutgers-Illinois) apple-breeding program in the United States that involves Purdue University, Rutgers University, and the University of Illinois.
Escande said about 240 acres of the variety have been planted or grafted over in France. The goal is to have 625 acres planted in Europe in the next three or four years and ultimately production of 10,000 metric tons of organic Juliet apples.
Dr. Jules Janick, horticulturist at Purdue, said that while Escande is heavily promoting the variety to organic growers in France, no one appears interested in championing the variety in the United States.
The PRI program, which has focused on developing scab-resistant varieties, has named and released 16 varieties since 1970. Juliet was released in 1999. It is a bicolored apple with good storability. Friends of Juliet describe it as juicy and perfumed, with a subacid flavor and an old-fashioned appearance (meaning large and flat). It is resistant to apple scab and mildew.
The three most recent PRI releases are Pixie Crunch, Sundance, and CrimsonCrisp.
Janick has high hopes for Pixie Crunch and CrimsonCrisp, but admits that GoldRush, which was released in 1993, hasn't achieved the level of success he anticipated.
"I think GoldRush is wonderful," he said, noting its good flavor and storability. However, it matures too late for some areas and "is not the most beautiful apple in the world," he admitted.
Adams County Nursery in Aspers, Pennsylvania, holds the U.S. rights to CrimsonCrisp (Co-op 39). Phil Baugher, vice president at the nursery, said that in the past there seemed to be more interest in disease-resistant varieties in Europe than in the United States, but that's been changing with the increasing interest in organic production.
Long shelf life
"Here in the East, we've seen more and more interest over the last five to ten years in disease-resistant cultivars in response to the growth of the organic market," he said.
Whereas the quality of disease-resistant cultivars of the past hasn't been up to par, recent releases from the PRI program appear to have good commercial qualities, such as a long shelf life, he said.
Adams County Nursery has been shipping CrimsonCrisp trees to growers for the past two years. Though the commercial blocks have yet to come into production, trial plantings indicate that the variety has some very good qualities, Baugher said. "The people I've talked to that tried it seem to be very impressed with it."
He describes it as an attractive apple with a deep red blush over about 80 percent of the fruit surface. In trials it has had very little russet and few skin blemishes. It matures in mid- to late September.
"What we really like are its keeping qualities," Baugher said. "It stays firm in cold storage for well into the late winter and spring monthseven in regular storage. I think it probably keeps as well as Fuji."
Another advantage of the disease-resistant varieties is the potential to lower production costs. Growers of processing apples need to find ways to produce apples more cheaply, he said. "Disease-resistant cultivars address that concern. We've seen an interest in the processing sector to plant these resistant cultivars to get away from the high costs of disease management."
Pixie Crunch (Co-op 33) is a small, full-red apple that ripens around the first week of September.
It is crisp and juicy, and tastes good, Janick said. "It has a terrific flavor. People tell me it's their favorite apple."
Small it may be, but Janick doesn't see that as an insurmountable problem, as he thinks it would be suitable for children and a good variety for U-pick operations.
"I think a smaller apple could go," he said. "Apples get too big. Who wants to eat an apple that weighs half a pound?"
Mitch Lynd of Lynd Fruit Farm near Pataskala, Ohio, said Pixie Crunch has a better flavor than Honeycrisp and is much sweeter, but is barely half the size.
"The big disadvantage of small fruit size is the cost of picking is high, and the retail grocery trade doesn't want a small apple," he said. "But they're out of touch with what consumers want. There's an awful lot of older people who don't want a great big apple. They prefer a small-sized applein fact, smaller than they could buy in the supermarket."
Small apples mean lower yields, but Lynd said that growers who sell directly to the public, and are price makers rather than price takers, can set their prices to offset the low yields with higher margins.
"We don't worry about small size," he said. "Pixie is the ideal apple for us for a niche-apple marketing slot where we're providing something they can't find anywhere else. It's too early to say whether there's going to be a consumer stampede to get that one, but the preliminary indications are very favorable."
Pixie Crunch is licensed in the United States to Gardens Alive, Inc., of Indiana and is available from Gurney's Seed and Nursery Company, and Henry Field Seed and Nursery Company. Ed Fackler, who handles requests to propagate Garden Alive's exclusive varieties, said Pixie Crunch is smaller than Gala but has exceptional flavor and crispness.
"I think in some ways it's more crisp than Honeycrisp, but it has a little different texture," he said. "It has a very unique full flavor. I do know some people who've made a lot of money on this in direct marketing because it's that good."
Fackler also enthuses about Sundance (Co-op 29), a large, semiconical, yellow apple that matures in October. It is the only yellow apple he knows of that has excellent resistance to cedar-apple rust as well as scab.
"I think Sundance has some value to the commercial organic grower," he said.
However, it is hypersensitive to a disease called frogeye leaf spot, which can be a problem in the eastern United States. It can also develop some stem-bowl russet or scarf skin.
Fackler said Sundance has a unique citric flavor and stores well. It holds up well at room temperature for up to two weeks.