A new apple will debut in September (weather permitting), one that the breeder and marketer hope will become a signature apple of the upper Mississippi River Valley growing region.
The marketer is Fred Wescott, Elgin, Minnesota, owner of Wescott Orchards and Wescott Agri-Products, who packs and distributes apples to retailers in the upper Midwest and is a champion of apples bred for and grown in his unique area. He markets apples for several growers.
For many years, Wescott’s business has thrived by selling the exceptional varieties developed by the University of Minnesota—the latest ones being Honeycrisp, SweeTango, and Zestar! These have become national varieties, but the university has turned out many others, like Regent and Haralson, that became regional favorites.
The breeder of this new apple is not the University of Minnesota but a private grower named Doug Shefelbine, Holmen, Wisconsin (see “DS 22 to debut”).
The new apple has been named, but the name is being kept secret until the trademarking process is complete. The cultivar name is DS 22, and the patent on that is pending. The exact genetics on this apple have not been determined. Shefelbine’s breeding program consists of recovering apple seeds from pomace from his cider mill, planting them out, and watching to see what happens. He’s been doing that for more than 20 years.
Possible parents include the apples in his orchard—Regent, Honeycrisp, Cortland, Haralson, and others—matched with any pollen any bee might want to carry into or around in the orchard.
Shefelbine sold exclusive rights to the apple to Wescott, who plans to commercialize it as a managed variety. “There are a number of varieties we’re looking at the potential of,” Wescott said in a phone interview with Good Fruit Grower. Shefelbine has some of them.
Members of the managed variety club will be the growers Wescott has worked with for many years packing and selling his and their apples. The idea is to test the variety in the market and let demand determine how many are needed and how widely they can be distributed, he said.
Wescott is convinced the apples grown along the Mississippi River bluffs in southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, and northeast Iowa are very desirable. “Our region, we feel, can produce a very high quality piece of fruit,” he said. “We have unique soils and weather. The trees receive all natural rainfall. And while our cold climate can be a drawback for production, it lends itself to producing a high-eating-quality apple.”
The area has good sites for air drainage. Located almost due west of Fruit Ridge in Michigan, it is on the cold side of Lake Michigan and does not have the protective “lake effect” advantage. “We’re a small region in a land of giants,” Wescott said, “but we grow some very healthy niche varieties.” Over the years, he has worked to create an identity for the apples of this region under the banner of the Mississippi Valley Fruit Co.
The region also has had “historically unique varieties” available, bred for the climate.
In his view, Honeycrisp would never have become a national brand had not the growers of the region proven its value. “We’re marketing the new apple as regionally specific,” he said, “but if the marketplace wants it bigger, we have the capacity to grow enough fruit to satisfy demand on a national level,” he said.
The new apple
The new apple, he said, “ripens before Honeycrisp and is a significant improvement to varieties that have historically been available in that time frame. We will sell it as a ‘window variety’ in the time period from September 1 to October 15, but it will store much longer than that.”
Wescott described it as orange-red with some striping on a yellow background, having “a different appearance and shape.” It is crisp, he said, and the flavor is “pleasant and snappy.” It is as high in sugar as Honeycrisp, but with more acidity so it “has a little more zing.”
The club concept
Wescott said he is not new to the club variety concept. In recent years, packers and distributors have sought out new varieties with which they could control production—both quantity and quality—so that a brand rather than a commodity can be sold.
In the open release model, he said, varieties are promoted by nurseries that want to sell trees and will sell them to anybody anywhere. The growers bear the risk.
In the club model, all the participants—breeder, grower, marketer, retailer—share the risks and all have the same goal of keeping the variety profitable.
In the past, Wescott has been able to market the region’s apples for their high quality. Growers in the area fared very well selling Honeycrisp apples long before growers elsewhere planted them. The university has a good breeding program and was the primary source of new varieties that benefitted the local growers.
This has somewhat changed, however. The University of Minnesota decided to make its latest release, the MN 1914 (SweetTango), a managed variety instead of an open release, and there are restrictions on who can grow and sell the variety, with most of the acreage being licensed to growers outside of Minnesota.
Working with a private breeder provides a real advantage, Wescott said. There is no question about who owns what and what can be done with it.
“We now have in DS 22 one early regional variety we think will be very good to kick off the season with,” Wescott said. “We are looking at others for the mid- to late season. It is hard to find a good, high quality early apple, and DS 22 is meant to fill that hole.”
The weather this year will have a big influence on whether it comes to market this fall. The early warm weather in March, followed by hard freezes all through April, may have dramatically cut the size of the apple crop across the entire East and Midwest, but that was not yet known as of mid-May.
Trees of the new variety are being grown by Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, Washington.