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'Honeycrisp' TM apple developed by the University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, project #21-016, "Breeding and genetics of fruit crops for cold climates," principal investigator, Jim Luby, scientist, David Bedford. Released in 1991. (Courtesy of University of Minnesota)

David Bedford, left, and Jim Luby hold a box of ‘Honeycrisp’ apples developed by the University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. (Courtesy of University of Minnesota)

David Bedford, apple breeder at the University of Minnesota, where the Honeycrisp apple originated, traveled to Washington State last month to beg growers not to kill the golden goose.

Honeycrisp, which is naturally adapted to Minnesota’s cold climate, was not originally thought to be suited to Washington’s hotter sites, but extremely high returns on the variety have motivated growers throughout the country to plant it and use practices to mitigate their microclimate, where necessary.

Washington produced about 4.6 million boxes of Honeycrisp this season, and the variety continues to be heavily planted.

In December, Washington Honeycrisp apples were selling at $54 a box f.o.b., compared with $24 for Fuji and Gala. While prices of all other apple varieties have dropped this season, Honeycrisp prices are holding up.

Honeycrisp has earned a reputation as one of the trickiest apples to grow because of its susceptibility to a whole host of diseases and disorders. As Bedford pointed out during a Washington State University Honeycrisp Fruit School in December, it didn’t come with an owner’s manual.

It’s a sensitive variety that’s not always comfortable with different environments, he said.

“Honeycrisp doesn’t adapt to environmental conditions as well as many varieties you grow,” he said. “I’ve always felt that coloration of the fruit is some indicator of its discomfort.

I look at that almost like a smoke alarm. If it’s in a site it’s not comfortable in, and especially if it’s too warm, poor color is a fact of life.”

Several new, highly colored strains of Honeycrisp are being commercialized, including Royal Red, Firestorm, and Cameron Select (see “Honeycrisp strains”).

Bedford said he’s concerned that these easy-to-color strains will enable growers to produce a red Honeycrisp on sites where it doesn’t belong.

Judging fruit maturity is more difficult with Honeycrisp than with other varieties, and a change in background color is one of the most reliable indicators of when to pick for optimum eating quality.

Bedford fears that if the apple is full red, pickers won’t know when to pick them, and fruit that is not properly matured will get into the marketplace.

“We get so hung up on the appearance, and we forget to look inside,” he said. “This is a real concern. You’re going to be able to grow it and get good color, but it’s not going to taste good. Just because it’s red doesn’t mean it’s edible with Honeycrisp. Picking too early really reduces the quality of the apple.”

Honeycrisp has been a success with the public not because of its color or appearance, but because of its eating quality, he stressed.

“I’m convinced that the only way prices are going to hold, or that you’re going to be able to sell this as a premium apple, is if you deliver eating quality,” he added. “You can only fool the public so long. If people aren’t getting what they expected, you’re going to lose market share.”

Day and night

Scott Marboe, marketing director of Oneonta Trading Corporation in Wenatchee, Washington, told attendees at the Fruit School how his family had bought Honeycrisp apples in Florida.

Some were grown in Washington and some were from the Midwest. They were all the same price, but the color and eating quality were night and day. The Washington apples were green and tasted bland.

“They were two totally different apples,” Marboe said. “That’s the kind of thing, as an industry, we really have to avoid. Honeycrisp is in huge demand, but if we’re not putting on the shelf what the consumer’s going to buy day in, day out, we’re going to hurt ourselves. It was a big wake-up call.”

Bedford said Washington has grown some nice Honeycrisp apples. “But there’s some fruit out there from Washington that’s not so pretty and doesn’t eat well,” he said. “Just because it can be grown here doesn’t mean it should be grown anywhere. My concern is that by growing red strains we start to cover up where it can be grown. It should be grown in certain areas.”

Eating quality

Karen Lewis, WSU extension specialist, asked speakers at the Fruit School what they thought was the number-one thing the Washington industry could do to maintain a consistently good eating experience for the consumer with Honeycrisp.

“Set a grade standard that doesn’t allow green background color,” responded Mike Robinson, a grower at Royal City, Washington.

Dr. Jim Luby, fruit breeder at the University of Minnesota, said it’s important not to stress the trees; otherwise, eating quality will suffer. “It’s a creature that just doesn’t tolerate stress,” he said.

Bruce Allen, a grower and packer based in Yakima, Washington, said every Honeycrisp grower should have to take an oath that they will look themselves in the mirror in the morning and say, “The apple I sent to market today was one I would personally like to bite into.”

Dr. Jim Mattheis, postharvest physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Wenatchee, said ­Honeycrisp should be picked neither too early nor too late, but if it is picked too late it shouldn’t be stored long.

Dan Griffith, horticulturist with G.S. Long, Yakima, suggested setting grade standards to avoid Washington losing its reputation because of a few growers who produce poor quality fruit, though he recognized that would be hard to do and implement.

Dr. Terence Robinson, horticulturist at Cornell University, New York, would like to see a new trademark—Honey Crunch—that could only be used for fruit that met certain standards.

He also thought that, because of the variety’s susceptibility to internal disorders, fruit held in controlled atmosphere storage should not be sent to market without internal defect sorting on the packing line to check every apple.

Bedford said growing quality Honeycrisp starts with crop load. The tree should not be stressed or overcropped, and the fruit should be picked at the right time. As Washington produces increasing volumes of Honeycrisp, the apples will be stored longer, and that pushes growers to pick earlier for good storability, which can negatively affect both flavor and texture.

“We’re asking people to pay $3 a pound or more, so you’ve set a very high bar in terms of what you’re going to deliver,” he said. “If I’ve paid twice the price of other apples and it doesn’t deliver, I’m really going to ­remember that experience.”

Bedford reminded growers of the fable about the goose that laid the golden eggs and said a variety as valuable as Honeycrisp comes along only once in a lifetime.

Although new Honeycrisp-like varieties are in the pipeline that might be easier to grow, there’s no guarantee that they will retain the exceptional eating quality of Honeycrisp, and there’s no knowing how consumers will respond.

“We need to make sure we don’t kill this one,” he said. “This is a rare opportunity.” •