Bill Dodd stands next to the EverCrisp mother tree, which grows at the Doud family’s County Line Orchard near Wabash, Indiana.

Bill Dodd stands next to the EverCrisp mother tree, which grows at the Doud family’s County Line Orchard near Wabash, Indiana.

photo courtesy of Bill Dodd

The first fruit of a grassroots apple breeding program is making its way into growers’ orchards.

EverCrisp apple trees are being sold this winter by Wafler’s Nursery in Wolcott, New York. EverCrisp was bred by the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, which has no formal plant breeder other than a group of growers who organized in 1998, convinced they can recognize superior apples and could create them—and do it operating on a shoestring budget.

The EverCrisp patent has been applied for, the name has been trademarked, and Wafler’s is budding trees that can be ordered now for delivery in the spring of 2015, according to Bill Dodd, the Ohio apple industry leader who is president of the MAIA. Bill Pitts from Wafler’s is taking orders at some of the winter horticulture shows, Dodd said. Wafler’s has been increasing budwood from the mother tree in Indiana for about four years, he added.

“Bill Pitts has been incredibly helpful to us,” Dodd said. “It has to be a royal pain for him, providing 20 trees of this, 20 trees of that.” The process of finding promising lines and evaluating them is starting to pay off, and Wafler’s will be the only nursery offering EverCrisp trees.

“MAIA is interested in licensing EverCrisp with other nurseries,” Dodd said, “but because of the limited supply of budwood, trees will only be available from Wafler’s for 2015.” No trees will be available before then.

Dodd said EverCrisp will be a “managed open release.”  Growers will pay $1 per tree royalty to Wafler Nursery at the time trees are delivered, plus annual trademark fees (see “EverCrisp growers must sign license agreement”), and must become members of the Midwest Apple Improvement Association. The fees will help offset expenses of the breeding program, which up until now have been paid from $100 annual membership fees paid by from 50 to 100 growers.

The name EverCrisp, suggested by board member Daniel “Dano” ­Simmons at Peace Valley Orchard in Rogers, Ohio, was chosen to capitalize on two features of the fruit. “Its outstanding quality is its keeping ability,” Dodd said. “The fruit keeps so well, we thought it was worth investing in it. It harvests late, similar to Fuji, maybe a little earlier. It has a pretty wide window of harvest, mid- to late October in Ohio.”

Its parents are Honeycrisp and Fuji. “It is more like a Fuji. It doesn’t have quite the Honeycrisp texture, but it is crisp,” Dodd said.

Two years ago, when David Hull of White House Fruit Farm in Canfield, Ohio, was MAIA president, he described this promising, unnamed selection this way: “This late-season apple is a roughly three-inch fruit, sweet with a crisp texture reminiscent of Honeycrisp, but somewhat harder. It is irregular in shape with color of washed red over a light yellow/green background. The seedling tree exhibits moderate to low vigor with good crotch angles. The fruit appears to store very well. We are now trying to build a quantity of scion wood to make large-scale testing ­possible for spring 2013 planting.”

A grassroots story

The decision to go with EverCrisp as its first cultivar is not easy at first to understand. The initial goals of MAIA don’t mention storage quality. Like its parents, EverCrisp has no special resistances to diseases like scab or fireblight, nor is it thought to be a late bloomer. These were qualities that were given top priority. But there was another as well.

About 15 years ago, some experienced Midwest apple growers with good reputations as growers and marketers—Mitch Lynd, Ed Fackler, David Doud, Jim Eckert, Dano Simmons, Gregg Bachman, and others—came to believe their future was threatened by club apples. In their view, the clubs were capturing the best new apples and they were not going to be available to direct farm marketers.

These growers market their apples directly to consumers through their farm markets, many times as pick-your-own. Their markets are usually destinations for families seeking an on-farm experience that might last several hours or all day. To attract repeat business, they need a constant stream of desirable apples that start ripening in July and carry through past Halloween. These markets grow and sell as many as 50 varieties.

Many markets stay open all year and need varieties that store well for winter and spring sale until new apples arrive. That’s where EverCrisp is scheduled to fit.

“Farm market people were not getting access to new varieties—that was a motive from the start,” Dodd said.

The MAIA process

Breeding apples need not be difficult. Apples readily cross pollinate. The Midwest Apple Improvement Association growers would get together, discuss good potential parent varieties, and make crosses. Then they would collect seeds and plant them out on member farms. The seedlings required minimal space and care as they waited five years or more to taste the fruit. This all takes time, labor, and space—but is something growers can do as a ­sideline.

To date, some 50,000 seedlings have been placed on growers’ farms to be evaluated.

Given this history, it is not surprising that credit for making the EverCrisp cross goes to several people who worked together, and that the mother tree is located on one of their farms. Mitch Lynd and Greg Miller are given the credit for making the cross. Miller is the husband of Dr. Diane Doud Miller, the Ohio State University horticulturist and researcher who is listed as a “special advisor” to the organization. The tree is at County Line Orchards in Wabash, Indiana, owned by the Doud family and managed by Diane’s brother, David.

“We’re not professional breeders,” Dodd said. Dodd, himself a grower and farm marketer (Hillcrest Orchards, Amherst, Ohio), manages two organizations involved in marketing apples for many Ohio growers (the Fruit Growers Marketing Association is a wholesale marketing cooperative, and the Ohio Apple Marketing Program, a checkoff program that promotes fresh Ohio apples). Dodd was recently selected to head Premier Apple Cooperative, a group that had been led by New York grower George Lamont. He is also president of the U.S. Apple Association this year. Because of these administrative abilities, he got the job of MAIA president—and of working with lawyers and making the patent applications.

Diane Miller, and her Ohio State University extension associate Dr. Jozsef ­Racsko, have helped the growers in many ways. In 2009, they began conducting consumer taste tests to determine how well the public would like the new apple and other new strains MAIA is developing. “For the last three or four years, we have taken fruit to the Fabulous Food Show in Cleveland,” Dodd said. “We have a booth there where we can do consumer evaluations. EverCrisp has scored very high.”

The MAIA niche

From the start, Dodd said, the goals of the Midwest Apple Improvement Association were to find apples that fit into important niches in the marketing year and would suit grower/marketers in the lower Midwest, a region that stretches in a band across the center of the United States and includes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, and Missouri. The area needs late-blooming varieties that survive spring freezes. Spring there comes earlier than in New York and Michigan, bringing trees out of dormancy ­earlier and exposing them to late freezes that are a common occurrence.

The MAIA mission statement begins: “There is a need for a Midwest apple breeding program, as current apple breeding programs are unlikely to produce varieties that will be economically viable for the lower Midwest.”

The goal was to carry out a grower-driven, grower-involved breeding program with the help of Ohio State University and other research institutions. They wanted “qualities acceptable to the modern consumer: size, firmness, storability, flavor, unique qualities, and maturity fitting with current or other new varieties to lengthen the apple harvest and marketing season.”

They also wanted fireblight and scab resistance and “reliable and productive cropping equal to or better than Golden Delicious.”

Many of the growers who are in the Midwest Apple Improvement Association also have a long association with the PRI cooperative program—the Purdue-Rutgers-Illinois program that developed and released more than 30 scab-resistant varieties, including Goldrush. They all agreed that disease resistance is a worthy breeding goal, and ­Goldrush was a parent in early crosses the members made. Dr. Jules Janick, the Purdue University horticulturist who remains the key person in PRI, and Dr. Chris Doll from the ­University of Illinois, are both long-time members of the MAIA board.

Dodd said MAIA has two or three other apples in the pipeline. “We have a couple we like for their timing. There’s a gap now between Honeycrisp and Jonagold.” That window in early to mid-September is currently filled by the old varieties Jonathan and Cortland.

You can find more about EverCrisp, including the license agreement and application for membership in MAIA, at the Web site http://evercrispapples.com.