Twenty-five years after starting an innocent project planting apple seeds from pomace left after cider making, Doug Shefelbine is finally being rewarded. Four new apple varieties he developed are in the process of being patented and brought into commercial production.
Exclusive rights to one of them, DS 22, has been sold to Wescott Orchards in Elgin, Minnesota.
“When I started this, people said there was one in a million chance I would find a good variety,” the Holmen, Wisconsin, apple grower said. “Actually, it’s better than that.”
Over the years, he says, he’s planted about 50,000 seeds, and most of the seedlings from them are still growing on his farm. He’s put tags on 275 of them, considering them good enough to evaluate further. He thinks 25 or 30 of them may go somewhere—well better than one in a million. And he is in the process of selling the rights to four of them.
“I just kept selecting good apples,” he said.
Shefelbine knew what he wanted. He wanted apples that were like Honeycrisp in texture and juiciness, richer in flavor, that would store well even though they were early season, have no bitter pit or internal browning, and were grower-friendly.
“It’s really hard to find a good early apple,” he said.
Shefelbine was one of the earliest growers of Honeycrisp. About 20 years ago, right after Honeycrisp was released, he topworked a 20-acre orchard of Regent trees growing in a 16- by 26-foot spacing on M.111 rootstock. Later, he planted some Honeycrisp at higher densities, but these first trees were very profitable for him.
Demand for his Honeycrisp apples was tremendous, he said. He developed a marketing plan he stills uses today to sell about three-fourths of his crop. They are sold field-run to other growers who operate farm retail markets but don’t grow enough Honeycrisp to meet demand. The other quarter goes to Wescott Orchards in Elgin, Minnesota, for packing and wholesale marketing.
“The Honeycrisp paid the bills,” Shefelbine said, even as he was spending about $10,000 a year to mow, spray, and maintain all those seedlings, most of which would never bear a salable apple.
Now age 73, Shefelbine has pushed out most of his trees and maintains 25 acres of Honeycrisp that yield 400 to 500 bushels per acre in the low-density plantings. He still has 10 to 15 acres of older varieties he’s either pushing out or top working to new varieties. The trees have been hedged off at eight feet to simplify picking.
Much of his orchard work is done by Amish workers, who prune his trees, hand thin the green fruit, and pick the apples. Three years ago, he started a pick-your-own business that he and his wife, Gale, run only on weekends during the Honeycrisp season.
Maintaining 50,000 seedlings is easier than it sounds, he said. They’re planted 12 to 18 inches apart in rows. Being on their own roots and not on dwarfing rootstocks, the close planting keeps the vigor and tree size down, but they are not precocious. It takes six or more years for them to bear, at which time they’ll need insecticide sprays to protect the fruit. But the basic idea is, get a few good apples from each tree simply to taste them.
“I spend three hours a day, every day, each fall, tasting apples,” he said.
If he likes the taste, he’ll pick them and bring them to his cooler for storage and tasting later. “I check them monthly,” he said. “They have to stay good at least through January or I’m not interested in them.”
A few years ago, Shefelbine began working with people at a nursery in Washington State. “I looked them up and had to convince them I had something worth looking at.” Now, they come to his orchard in the fall and participate in the tasting.
Locally, Shefelbine built a reputation as a grower who knew a good apple when he saw one. He’d bring some of his selections to the winter horticulture shows in Wisconsin and Minnesota and share them with other growers. He developed a following of fans who look forward to getting apples he’s selected.