Washington State University’s apple breeder, Dr. Kate Evans, is not recommending that the university release another variety for at least a year or two.
The breeding program’s first variety, WA 2, was released in 2009, went into widescale evaluation a year ago, and can now be planted commercially. The second variety, WA 5, which was released in 2010, is going into widescale testing this spring. No date has been set for it to move into the commercialization phase, however.
Evans said other promising varieties are in the pipeline, but further releases have not been scheduled. She’s aware that some industry people feel that the program should release several varieties quickly, but said she thinks that would be irresponsible.
The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission will hold the master license for all WSU varieties, which are owned by the WSU Research Foundation. It plans to set up an “ad hoc management entity” to manage the commercialization of the varieties. To set up the nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, the commission had to amend its enabling legislation. This was done during the 2010 Washington State legislative session.
The commission is working with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office to set up the new organization, which Brent Milne, chair of the breeding program’s Industry Advisory Committee, said could be a long and tedious process. Bylaws for the new organization will need to be drafted and a board of directors and a staff administrator appointed.
The ad hoc entity, which will be modeled after the Potato Variety Management Institute, will coordinate the propagation of planting material and, in collaboration with nurseries, 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.
WA 2 and WA 5 have been released to the industry without trademarked names with the idea that it will be up to producers and marketers to brand the apples as they wish. But the lack of marketable names has been controversial.
Milne said the advisory committee has discussed whether or not the varieties should be named but decided to stay with the original plan for WA 2.
Asked whether multiple brand names for a variety might cause confusion in the marketplace, Milne pointed out that the Pinova apple has had several other names at times (Corail, Sonata, and Piñata).
“We’re satisfied with letting it go out as WA 2,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s a grand experiment. I think people are still pulling information together on how they could do this and testing the apple and taking a look at it, and there’s a lot involved.”
Milne said WSU’s breeding program is leading the world in terms of employing its experts in genomics and genetics to help generate new apple cultivars as quickly and efficiently as possible, but the marketing is up to the industry.
“To move one of these apples forward, it’s going to take someone who’s really committed to the cultivar,” he said. “From the Research Commission standpoint, we put in all this work to ensure the growers of the state have the opportunity to get hold of this material, and we take it to the door of commercialization, and it’s up to the marketing strategists and the growers to put their creative juices together and see what they can come up with.”
Auvil said the Research Commission’s position is that its primary responsibility is to deliver high-quality varieties to the industry at the lowest possible cost, and it should be up to growers to decide how to brand or label the fruit.
If the Research Commission were to incur the costs involved with naming varieties and licensing trademarks, it would significantly increase the fees and royalties that it would have to charge. That would mean greater investments by growers in advance of being able to ship the fruit, he said, and economists say that the higher the initial investment in an orchard planting, the harder it is to generate a profit.
“We’re trying to minimize the up-front investment,” he said. “I think the Research Commission’s position is that our primary responsibility is to deliver the highest quality at the lowest cost to the industry, and it’s up to the commercial producers to figure out what formats are going to be used to take it to market.”
Evans said she does not expect changes in the way WA 2 and WA 5 will be commercialized, but the process is not set in stone for future releases.
“It’s a learning curve for WSU, and also for the commission,” she said. “We’re evolving the method of release, the more experience we get.”
She probably will not recommend that WSU release another variety this year. The delay is not because of a lack of good quality cultivars, she said. “I’m more concerned about getting some of the kinks out of the release strategy. It’s possible we might go for one in 2012, but I’m really not sure about that for the moment. I might put it off for another year.”