About 130 Washington growers are evaluating WSU’s first apple, WA 2, in their orchards.
Soon, Washington State growers are going to have a wide choice of new apple varieties to grow, all of which are being developed specifically for them.
Washington State University has released the first two varieties from its apple-breeding program. The variety WA 2 was patented last year and is going through widescale evaluation. It will shift into the commercialization phase next spring.
The second release is ready to be patented and will be available for widescale evaluation next spring. More than 50 other advanced selections are in the early stages of evaluation in research and on-farm plots.
“I think it’s difficult for the industry to really get their arms around just what the output of this breeding program could be,” said Brent Milne, chair of the breeding program’s Industry Advisory Council. “I think the scope of it is much different from anything we’ve experienced before. We’re going to be dealing with enough good cultivars that people are going to have a choice, over time. It’s really going to change how we operate in this industry. It has that much potential.”
WSU horticulturist Dr. Bruce Barritt, now retired, launched the breeding program in 1994. Since then, WSU has recruited top scientists to its plant genomics, genetics, and breeding team. They have been using genetic tools to identify good potential germ plasm to use for crosses and to quickly identify promising selections among the progeny. This greatly improves the chances of generating new varieties with desirable traits, Milne said.
WSU selections progress through four evaluation stages before reaching commercialization. In the first phase, seedlings are evaluated by WSU. In phase 2, grower-cooperators at representative sites evaluate about five trees per selection under a WSU testing agreement. At this stage, selections are compared with standard varieties, such as Gala, Fuji, and Cripps Pink. In phase three, four grower-cooperators evaluate up to 100 trees per selection, and more information is gleaned on production and storage issues.
WA 2 is in phase-four, widescale evaluation. In this phase, growers sign a lease-option agreement with the WSU Research Foundation, which owns the selections. They can plant five trees at up to three sites at a cost of $500 per selection per site.
The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which has helped fund the breeding program since its inception, holds an exclusive license for WA 2 and future varieties and is making them available to any Washington State grower who wants to grow them.
About 130 growers expressed interest in evaluating WA 2 during the first sign-up period between December, 2009, and March this year. Although WSU has about 7,500 WA 2 trees left over, Milne said he was pleased by the interest that growers demonstrated in the variety.
There will be similar sign-up periods for WA 2 for the next four years. Trees that weren’t leased to growers this year will be grown for another year in the nursery and made available next year as three-year-old line-outs.
Only those who have phase-four evaluation agreements can apply for a nonexclusive license to grow WA 2 commercially after it goes into the commercial phase in early 2011. Milne said some growers have already inquired about obtaining enough trees for commercial plantings next spring. Growers will pay a one-time royalty of $1 per tree or $1,000 per acre and no production royalties. Tree royalties will be higher in the future as production increases beyond 250,000 boxes.
Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission, said the commission plans to set up a nonprofit foundation to manage the varieties and is looking at the Potato Variety Management Institute as a model. The foundation will have a board of directors and a staff administrator. It will coordinate the propagation of phase four and five material, in collaboration with nurseries, and provide the material to growers who sign up. It will handle the financial aspects and be responsible for safeguarding the intellectual property. It will not be involved in marketing or promotion of any of the selections.
So far, with few trees planted, only a small amount of WA 2 has been produced for evaluation by WSU and growers. The first significant volume isn’t expected until the first commercial plantings are in their third leaf, in 2013.
Tom Auvil, research horticulturist with the Research Commission, said some growers might crop the trees early to find out what the fruit looks like, while others might want to push tree growth to generate some bud wood for grafting. Growers may produce bud wood themselves, but must pay royalties.
Milne said the Industry Advisory Council plans to use a similar procedure for the evaluation and commercialization of future varieties. “The framework is established. It’s flexible, and there might be subtle differences, but for the most part, that’s the route we’re going to take.”
WA 2 has no trademarked name. Marketers will be able to brand the fruit as they wish. Milne expects that as commercial volumes become available growers will get behind the variety and make arrangements with a marketing entity to sell the fruit. There are different paths they might take to market the variety successfully.
He expects to see the number of different varieties on the market increase, although that might mean they have shorter commercial lives than past varieties.
“Ultimately, if the consumer is happy with the product, that’s going to drive changes at our end,” he said. “If you’d said to someone in the late seventies that there would be a day when Red Delicious would only be 35 percent of the industry, they would have laughed at you.”
Now, the industry has numerous successful varieties in its mix, such as SweeTango, Ambrosia, Jazz, and Pacific Rose.
“The dynamic is already there and established, and I think as a matter of course these Washington breeding program cultivars are going to be the next succession of cultivars,” he said.