Evaluating new varieties
France has a strong program to evaluate new tree fruit varieties.
Top: Claude Coureau, researcher at La Morinière station, demonstrates technology used to measure the firmness, sugar level, and other quality attributes of fruit. Bottom: This platform allows six workers to pick into the center-housed bins.
In France, new varieties are evaluated by a number of private entities as well as the French government's agricultural research arm and grower-supported research stations.
The Technical Institute Center for Fruit and Vegetables (CTIFL), which is similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, plays a key role in evaluating tree fruit varieties and rootstocks developed by public and private breeding programs in France. In the last decade, the center has evaluated nearly 650 apple cultivars and sports and 200 pear varieties.
In collaboration with CTIFL, La Morinière grower research station near Saint Epain in the Loire Valley also evaluates new varieties and rootstocks. La Morinière, created by growers, is funded by Loire Valley growers and local and regional governments. The 90-acre station, with about 70 acres of apple orchards, 15 acres of pears, and 2.5 acres of cherries and currants, also has six cold-storage rooms of controlled atmosphere and regular air for postharvest variety evaluation and research.
France's public breeding program is conducted under the auspices of the National Institute for Agricultural Research known as INRA. The country also has five private tree fruit breeding programs. Since 1998, CTIFL has evaluated new cultivars of both private and public entities to better identify and describe new varieties and learn about orchard and storage behavior.
Variety evaluation is divided into two levels, explained Sandrine Codarin, who is in charge of apple and pear evaluation at the Lanaxde CTIFL research station near Bergerac.
For the first level of evaluation, two trees are planted in the three main apple-producing regions of France (southeast, southwest, and the Loire Valley). Data are collected for five to six years. Confidentiality of the sites and information are closely guarded—no one is allowed to visit level-one sites except nursery representatives involved with the specific variety. Trees are evaluated for vigor, harvest date, fruit quality, color, scald, russet, and other characteristics.
At the second level of evaluation, 20 trees of each variety are planted in nine different sites for apples and seven sites for pears. Again, the sites and data collected are guarded for confidentiality. No information about a variety is published for a minimum of three years after planting. Data are collected on crop load, thinning response, rootstock compatibility, yield, optimum training systems, storability, and such.
Examples of apple cultivars now commercially produced that were evaluated by CTIFL include Ariane, Topaz, Corail (Pinova), Sundowner, and the pear variety Angelys.
As well as collecting data on new varieties involved in level two of evaluation, researchers at La Morinière conduct commercial-scale trials on pest management, orchard management, mechanization, organic production, and postharvest issues. More than 25 varieties are planted at the station.
Claude Coureau, a CTIFL engineer who is responsible for fruit quality and conservation research at La Morinière, said that growers help manage the station and guide the research programs. Some 400 growers from France and other European countries usually attend the annual field days held at the station to share research results.
Coureau said they are looking at several different mechanical harvesting systems, including French and Spanish machines that serve as platforms but have room for bins in the middle of the platform. Some platforms have three levels, while others under study have two. Trials for mechanical thinning are being conducted with the Darwin string machine from Germany.
The fruiting wall, a training system developed by CTIFL, is the focus of another trial at La Morinière. Two-leader trees are trained to grow in a hedge or wall of fruit, with the potential to reduce pruning costs by using a mechanical hedger. The fruiting wall system is still under assessment and is not ready yet for widespread commercial adoption, she said.
The Loire Valley receives around 25 inches of rain annually, making organic production difficult because of high scab pressure. Although demand for organic products is strong in the marketplace, only 2 percent of the country's apple production is organic, Coureau said. "Organic apple production is not very easy in France."
Average yields for French organic apples are around 17 tons per hectare or 17 bins per acre compared with 50 to 60 bins per acre for conventional production, she said. Biennial bearing is one of the biggest reasons for the low tonnage.