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Washington State University’s tree fruit breeding programs are still years away from commercially releasing new varieties, but WSU and industry representatives are already thinking about how new varieties from the programs will be commercialized.

The apple breeding program was established in 1994 at Wenatchee, and the cherry breeding program was revived at Prosser in 2005.

The apple variety landscape has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Consumers no longer buy apples just by variety, like Gala or Granny Smith, explains Dr. Bruce Barritt, WSU apple breeder. Today, they also buy apples by brand name. Examples include the Pink Lady brand/ Cripps Pink cultivar, Jazz brand/Sci Fresh cultivar, and Cameo brand/Caudle cultivar.

New varieties, once openly released to all growers around the world without planting or packing restrictions, are now generally released under managed programs.

“There’s a huge paradigm shift in the way we go about commercializing varieties,” he said during a recent conference examining plant research commercialization issues sponsored by WSU, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, Washington State Potato Commission, and the San Francisco-based law firm Morrison and Foerster.

Managed varieties

“In the past, the open release system was a free-for-all without control of quantity, quality, or a market strategy, and there were low income expectations relative to today’s expectations,” Barritt said. “Managed release programs are a disciplined approach to retain intellectual property value with enhanced income. Growers expect higher incomes from managed releases.”

Varieties weren’t branded in the past because industry didn’t see a value, he added. Also, changes in plant patent protection laws broadened the scope of plant patents to include technology.

For a branded variety to be successful, Barritt emphasized that all segments of industry—from breeder, grower, handler, marketer, retailer, and consumer—must receive value.

The Okanagan Plant Improvement Company, known as PICO, manages new varieties developed by the breeders at the Canadian government’s Summerland research center in British Columbia. It has commercialized 14 varieties in 23 countries.

James Calissi, former manager of PICO, said that some varieties, like the Skeena cherry, are released with unrestricted access through licensed nurseries. Others, like the late-season cherry Staccato, are part of managed programs that are viewed as a way to deliver value back to Canadian growers who fund the government breeding program through taxes.

The Ambrosia apple variety was originally released by PICO as an open-release patented variety. “But the variety was not going anywhere except to markets in Canada,” he said, adding that it’s difficult to introduce a new, unique variety to the marketplace without critical mass.

Once PICO placed Ambrosia in a managed program, the “phone rang off the hook,” and the variety took off, Calissi said. Only about a half dozen companies outside of Canada are licensed to produce Ambrosia.

Representing a grower-shipper’s view, Dave Allan of Allan Brothers, Inc., in Yakima, Washington, discussed his company’s experiences with managed varieties. Allan Brothers is licensed to grow and pack ENZA’s trademarked apple varieties Jazz and Pacific Rose.

“There’s one basic thing you need to remember when you are talking about a new variety,” Allan said. “To make money with apples, you must develop and market an apple that gives value to the consumer at a relatively high retail price. If you don’t have that, the rest is unimportant.”

Breeding programs

Apple breeding programs around the world have proliferated in both numbers and intensity, he said. They no longer are funded solely by government, but by a combination of sources, including government, industry, and private companies, which greatly increases the probability that a new release will be part of a controlled marketing program.

Allan sees managed variety programs as a way to bridge the communication gap between consumers and new products. With a managed variety, the marketing group works closely with retailers to provide the branded promotions that are needed for new varieties.

“With the consumer looking at all the different varieties in the produce section, you have to find a way to communicate to the consumer about how fantastic the Pacific Rose variety is,” he said, adding that the apple has a wonderful aroma after it ripens. “The consumer is only two feet away from the product, but she might as well be ten miles. Promotion and consumer education are key to a new variety.”

In the future, as retailers will be able to calculate the performance of each product through the use of category management and barcode information, Allan envisions suppliers of managed varieties becoming part of an integrated retail system, with more of the promotional activities supported by the retailer.