As well as growing fresh apples, Jack Feil grows cider apples, including Hewes Crab, a variety that originated in Virginia around 300 years ago.
Jack Feil grows more than 200 different apple varieties at his orchard in East Wenatchee, Washington, but thinks that’s not enough. He wants to grow apples for every taste.
His collection includes everything from Spitzenberg, a variety that his grandparents planted when they established the orchard more than a century ago, to WA 2, a recent unnamed release from Washington State University’s apple breeding program.
He’s also making crosses himself, hoping to breed unique varieties to offer at his fruit stand, where he sells most of his fruit. He began his own informal breeding program about 10 to 12 years ago and wishes he’d started much earlier, given the long-term nature of traditional variety breeding.
“I’m going to run out of time,” the 82-year-old Feil laments.
Retired WSU horticulturist Dr. Bob Norton showed him how to emasculate the blossoms and apply pollen to make hybrid apples. He takes seeds from the apples and grows them into seedlings in a test plot in his orchard. Those that show promise are budded onto rootstocks for further evaluation.
Each year, he removes some of his 50 acres of trees to make room for more and expects soon to have 275 apple varieties, along with numerous apricot, cherry, and pear varieties.
“My objective was to get a real nice specific apple that was different, so I could sell it at my fruit stand, and I was the only one to have it,” he said.
Feil acknowledges it’s a long shot, particularly as he’s not able to use new technology such as genetic markers to speed up the selection as some other breeders do. But he already has some unique apples, one of which is a cross of Spitzenberg and Rome that he calls Freckles. It’s a large, distinctive, 100-percent red apple that has lenticels the size of freckles.
“Looks are one of the big things when people are buying apples,” remarked Feil, who has observed consumers’ buying habits while selling apples at the family fruit stand at the orchard for almost 60 years.
But Freckles is lacking in some other characteristics. “It’s a unique apple and a nice-looking apple, but the flavor is ordinary, and if people pick up an apple that looks different but tastes ordinary, they probably won’t come back and buy it again,” Feil said.
He’s now crossing Freckles with other varieties, such as Maigold, in the hope of developing an apple that looks similar but with better eating quality and storability. He describes Maigold as “fantastic apple” that failed as a commercial variety because of alternate bearing and poor production.
He’s also making crosses with Spitzenberg, which has been a mainstay at the orchard since his grandparents Augusta and Henry Feil planted it in 1908 when they moved to Washington from New York. Though they were from the area where the Spitzenberg originated, they found that the variety grew better in Washington.
In 1903, Wenatchee grower Mike Horan had displayed some of his Spitzenberg apples at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and touted them as being from the Apple Capital of the World, Feil relates. That’s how Wenatchee claimed that title—before it ever became known for its Red Delicious.
“Spitzenberg is just an excellent all-round variety,” Feil enthused. “My grandmother used to make what she called a schnitzel pie, and she used the Spitzenberg. That pie was something out of this world.”
Spitzenberg is a large, round, red apple with a somewhat tart flavor. It’s one failing is that it doesn’t store well, which is why Feil is trying to improve on it.
It was his grandmother who started the fruit stand at the orchard, which is on a highway that used to be the main route between Seattle and Spokane before Interstate 90 was built. His parents, Harold and Clara, bought an adjoining orchard. After some tough times during the Depression, his parents lost their orchard but managed to keep the original Feil orchard. Jack trained as a pharmacist, but returned to work at the orchard in 1953 after serving in the U.S. Army. He has operated it since his father died in 1964.
The fruit stand is open from cherry season in June through April, so Feil needs a range of varieties that mature at different times. He has the summer apple Yellow Transparent and Arkansas Black, which doesn’t mature until November.
He has Ralls Janet, an eighteenth-century variety that a Japanese breeding program crossed with Red Delicious to produce the Fuji apple. Ralls Janet also went by several other names, including Neverfail (because it blooms late and is not susceptible to frost damage).
He also has Splendour, a chance seedling from New Zealand that was not a commercial success in its own right, perhaps because of its tender skin, but is the parent of several new varieties including Pacific Rose, New Zealand Beauty, Nicola, and Aurora.
Feil personally likes varieties derived from Cox’s Orange Pippin, such as Karmin de Sonneville (a cross of Cox and Jonathan) and Fiesta (a cross of Cox and Idared), and is using Ribston Pippin (thought to be a parent of Cox) in his breeding efforts.
He has Enterprise, GoldRush, and other disease-resistant apples from the Purdue, Rutgers, and University of Illinois (PRI) cooperative breeding program, as well Macoun and more recent releases from New York’s breeding program at Cornell.
He describes the Hawaii apple (a Gravenstein and Golden Delicious cross) as a tremendous apple, though it never became popular, perhaps because of poor cosmetics.
So, which is his favorite apple?
“If I go out in the orchard looking for an apple, and there’s a Red Delicious hanging that’s ripe, I will probably eat that,” he said. “I do like a Spitzenberg—it’s a really good cooking apple, it’s an all-purpose apple—and I will eat that, too, but I like a Delicious. There’s something about them. When you bite into it, the aroma goes up your nose and the juice comes down your chin.”
Like his customers, Feil enjoys Honeycrisp. “But I hate to eat a good Honeycrisp because they’re worth so much money at the stand. I’m eating my profit,” he joked.
Nowadays, his orchard manager Lupe Torres and fruit stand manager Octavio Torres do much of the day-to day-work, but Feil still loves to go out into the orchard to check on his trees.
His apple breeding is a hobby, not an occupation, he says. “But it’s such a nice hobby. Maybe in several more years I’ll have something special. I’m so happy I’m alive and enjoying life.”