RiverBelle

RiverBelle

Courtesy of Wescott Agri Products

Two new apple varieties, Pazazz and RiverBelle, are growing in some apple orchards and coming to market through a new development process.

The apples are being commercialized by Apple Varietal Development LLC, a company organized by Fred Wescott, owner of Wescott Orchards and Agri Products in Elgin, Minnesota. Wescott Agri Products packs and sells fruit from many sources, but emphasizes apples produced in the Upper Mississippi Valley region of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Wescott spoke about his new enterprise to growers during the International Tree Fruit Association’s winter conference in Boston and expanded on his remarks in a phone interview with Good Fruit Grower.

Wescott says his commercialization program is “a new model” for evaluating and marketing new apple varieties.

The traditional model is the open release, in which publicly funded land grant university breeding programs breed, evaluate, and release new varieties. Production and distribution of these varieties are driven by the nursery industry.

The nurseries’ goal is to sell trees, Wescott said, so they promote the varieties to growers. In the end, however, successful varieties become overproduced commodities—and the challenge then is to sell as many as possible. It is supply driven.

The “club model” was created to make apple production driven by demand rather than the need to sell volume, he said. Supply is managed to meet demand, and production is restricted to club members, who share in the costs and benefits of bringing it to market.

In recent years, these two models have evolved and sometimes merged. States and universities with publicly funded programs have developed varieties and released them with restrictions that generate revenue streams to support the breeding programs. Two new varieties from Cornell, two new varieties from Washington State, and one new variety from University of ­Minnesota follow this pattern.

New problems have resulted, Wescott said. There has been an explosion of new varieties coming from very diverse breeding programs. Growers, whether individually or organized in clubs, need a way to make variety choices in more disciplined ways.

Variety development

This is where Apple Varietal Development LLC enters the picture.

As Wescott envisions it, apples that have reached a basic threshold—they look really good to somebody—enter into a multiregional testing program so they can be evaluated under different growing conditions in different regions, including different countries.

Apple Varietal Development has put that testing network in place, Wescott said. Apples are being planted and tested in two regions in New York State, in both south and north Washington State, in Nova Scotia, and in the Midwest. There are parallel test sites in the Southern Hemisphere as well.

“We’ll test any variety and give our opinion,” Wescott said. “Then we’ll make our proposal to the breeder or owner of the variety and propose a strategy for commercializing it. We’ll tell the owner where it looks like it will grow best and how good the market looks for it.”

Of the two varieties that have come through the program so far,  Pazazz seems to have big potential to be grown in many areas, Wescott said. “Pazazz is scoring very well and is being planted now.” He did not say where that apple was bred.

RiverBelle, on the other hand, seems destined to be a seasonal good-eating variety that grows best and could be “regionally significant” at farm markets and stores in the Upper Midwest.

RiverBelle was selected by Doug Shefelbine, a grower from Holmen, Wisconsin, whose private apple breeding efforts were described in

Good Fruit Grower in June last year. RiverBelle was then called DS 22. It would have come to market last year if freezes had not interfered with production in the Upper Mississippi region. Wescott says the variety potentially could become a signature variety for the region.

Commercialization

How does Wescott’s company benefit from this arrangement?

In most cases, he said, the arrangement between Apple Varietal Development and the breeder is “first right of access” for the variety. “If it fits, we’ll make an offer to commercialize it,” he said.

That might mean creating a club, funneling it to growers for whom he packs and sells apples in the Upper Mississippi region, making it generally available to farm ­marketers, or some other option.

It can also be done on a fee-for-service basis for breeders who need variety performance information, or have their own plans for commercializing the variety, or just want information on how it looks growing in different regions.

“We’ll develop a commercialization strategy based on the reality of the variety’s traits,” Wescott said. “We will set up regionally appropriate production and marketing programs.”

Honeycrisp was bred in 1961, released in 1991, and is only now being widely planted. Wescott thinks the time frame can be much improved with a standardized, organized approach. Breeders, using gene markers and laboratory tests, are finding ways to evaluate new crosses faster. What’s needed is a more coordinated method of evaluating them for release into commercial production.

“The future health of our industry will be based on our ability to increase consumption that meets or exceeds the pace of production,” he said. “Currently, production increases outpace consumption increases. Improvement of varietal selections that better meet the expectation of a diverse customer base can help reverse this trend.”