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The Santana variety, selected by Dutch researchers in 1978, is a cross of Elstar and Priscilla.

The Santana variety, selected by Dutch researchers in 1978, is a cross of Elstar and Priscilla.

Dutch researchers believe Santana, a hypoallergenic apple variety that’s finding an outlet in some of the Netherlands’s leading super–markets, may help orchardists reduce their –environmental impact.

Santana, a cross of Elstar and Priscilla, was selected by researchers at Wageningen University in 1978. The fruit is midsized, firm, and aromatic, with a yellow skin that flushes red as it approaches maturity at the first of September. It is also notable for being of minimal risk to people allergic to apples, which is about 2 percent of the population of northern and central Europe.

But what interests Dr. Rien van der Maas, a senior research scientist at Wageningen University focusing on farming systems and soils, is the variety’s resistance to scab and mild susceptibility to European fruit canker, Nectria galligena. These traits mean growers can cultivate Santana with fewer inputs than other varieties, an important factor for meeting the stringent standards of –Holland’s Centrum voor Landbouw en Milieu (CLM, or Centre for Agriculture and the –Environment).

An advocate for sustainable farming practices, the organization has developed a point system for grading the environmental impact of chemical inputs. The orchard models van der Maas is developing aim to achieve a lower score than the "maximum acceptable risk" determined by CLM’s scoring system.

"You have chemicals that you use in large quantities which hardly have an environmental effect, then you have chemicals which you only use one time in only a very small concentration with very large environmental impact. So, actually, we calculate the impact to surface water, groundwater, and soils, and in future, probably the air," he said. "The goal we set for our program is that none of the individual spraying activities lead to environmental pollution above the maximum accepted level."

Ideally, new systems should be robust enough to produce fruit without significant chemical use, he added. State-of-the-art spray nozzles, practices such as spraying the outside rows of orchards to limit drift into watercourses, and integrated pest management are all facets of a system he’s developing that’s currently on trial at three locations.

"There are still one or two chemicals you cannot use because the environmental pollution is too high, so you skip those and try to think of something else to solve that problem," he said.

Scab resistance

That’s where Santana fits in. Since growers in Holland have one real option for controlling scab—sulfur—van der Maas said there’s a need for scab-resistant varieties.
Sulfur, he notes, can promote russetting.

"That’s not good for [high] quality production," van der Maas said.

Santana’s resistance to scab reduces the need to spray to about five to six times a year.

Having identified a use for the apple within an environment-friendly farming system, van der Maas began to look at how the Santana apple could fit into the marketplace.

"If there’s no commercial future for those new varieties, then my research is done for nothing," he said.

A past attempt to introduce Santana to the market had failed because of storage concerns, but those were solved by reducing oxygen levels in cold storage such that the variety now keeps upwards of six months until the first of March.

Hypoallergenic niche

The apple’s hypoallergenic trait was key to finding a potentially profitable niche for the apple, however. Research indicated that 73 percent of those with apple allergies would choose to eat Santana in the future, suggesting that a profitable market could be developed for the variety.

But marketing such a special apple required a protocol to ensure the variety reached those most able to benefit from its unique properties, as well as limiting liability from any potential allergic –reactions.

Point-of-sale information was developed to highlight restrictions for the apple, such as noting that it was for people with mild allergies (studies indicated that people would generally overestimate their tolerance, van der Maas said, so a buffer was built in to avoid the risk of a significant allergic reaction).

The protocol also aimed to reduce the risk of the variety being contaminated or confused with varieties more likely to cause an allergic reaction, as well as confusion with apples similar in appearance, such as Rubens.

Consequently, neighboring blocks must be unlike Santana to prevent confusion among pickers, while the apples themselves sport distinctive packaging at retail that highlights their hypoallergenic character.

A sales trial in 2006 saw packages of Santana sold in 100 locations of the premium supermarket chain Albert Heijn. There was an 80 percent satisfaction rate, and van der Maas noted that a taste test in two of the stores indicated that a third of consumers prefer Santana to the sweeter, more popular varieties Elstar and Jonagold. This winter, sales will expand to 400 locations of Albert Heijn, as well as locations of C-1000, the Netherlands’s second-largest grocery chain. The expanding sales could provide a bright future for the apple.