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Managers of club apple varieties dismiss the notion that small growers will be locked out of their programs.

Dr. Terence Robinson, horticulturist with Cornell University, New York, expressed concern during the International Tree Fruit Association’s annual conference that small growers would not be included in managed variety programs and would therefore be unable to participate in the global apple industry of the future.

"We cannot serve society well without small growers," he said. "If agriculture becomes an industrialized, corporate, globalized business, I think we lose something.

"So how can new variety managers help keep the family farmers in business? Are any of you altruistic enough to do that?" he asked members of a panel who discussed how the varieties they were involved with were being commercialized.

Alessio Martinelli, director of Consorzio Italiano Vivaisti in Italy, said some good open varieties have been put on the market, but as production increased, the prices went down. There was no control of quality or supply to the market.

"I think everybody knows of some good varieties that didn’t make it on the market just because of unorganized production and sales," he said. "Now, the controlled system is trying to give an answer to growers."

Growers are free to grow the varieties he represents—Modi and Rubens—though they must sell them through a licensed marketer, which assures a concentration of produce and a standard quality product with the aim of securing higher returns to the growers, he said.

"It’s not a question of small or large growers. It’s a question of growers engaging and linking to an organization."

Dennis Courtier, with the Next Big Thing in Minnesota, said the cooperative has quite a few small growers as well as some very large growers.

"What’s killed small growers is low prices," he said. "We have to do something about low prices and this is an attempt to do that. I would hope it will keep family farms in business and not take them out."

Keith Carlson, president of the Okanagan Plant Improvement Company (PICO) in British Columbia, Canada, pointed out that his organization is owned by the British Columbia Fruit Growers Association and most of its members are small growers. The Canadian Government mandates that the varieties PICO handles be made available to any of the growers. "We don’t have very large growers," he said.

Dale Goldy with Stemilt Ag Services, Wenatchee, Washington, stressed the importance of managing the quality of the fruit going to market. Stemilt’s growers are producing a lot of Piñata fruit from trees that are in their second, third, and fourth leaf.

Managing for quality

"We have to know that our partners have not only the fortitude, but the financial ability to withstand what we do to the packouts in the second to fourth leaf, and it’s a tough spot we’re in right now."

The retailers are happy with the quality of fruit they’re receiving, he said, but the packouts are low.

Dr. Ton den Nijs, manager of the plant breeding program at the Wageningen research station in the Netherlands, commented from the audience that variety breeders can’t afford to be too altruistic, or they would be out of business.

"Breeding is quite an expensive business," den Nijs said. "Creating such a variety costs a couple of million euros. How are we going to get those euros back? Only by doing it in combination with the marketing groups. It’s the only way forward. We cannot afford to deal out all the varieties to small growers throughout the world. It’s not realistic."