Pete Van Well (left) and Alessio Martinelli of CIV, Italy, admire the color of Rubens apples in Wenatchee, Washington, just before harvest.

Pete Van Well (left) and Alessio Martinelli of CIV, Italy, admire the color of Rubens apples in Wenatchee, Washington, just before harvest.

Rubens, a new apple variety from Italy, will be commercialized in North America in a novel way that is designed to reduce the risk for producers and to maximize returns. Rubens is the trade name for a variety called Civni, which was bred by a consortium of nurseries called Consorzio Italiano Vivaisti in Ferrara, Italy. The cross was made in 1984, and the variety was released in Europe in 2000. The first test trees in Washington State were planted in 2005.

The International New Varieties Network (INN) is commercializing the variety in North America under a managed system, but it will not be a club variety, said Jack Snyder, president of C & O Nursery in Wenatchee, Washington, which is an INN member.

Snyder said a managed variety differs from a club variety in that production is not restricted to an exclusive group of growers and there is no cap on production. A managed variety has requirements in terms of the quality of the fruit, but it does not require up-front payments or acreage fees from growers, as a club variety does.

The variety has been licensed to two Washington companies, Columbia Fruit Packers, Inc., of Wenatchee, and Chelan Fruit Cooperative in Chelan. Marketing rights have been awarded to the two companies’ marketers, Columbia Marketing International and Chelan Fresh.

400 acres

Mike Wade, general manager of Columbia Fruit Packers, said the companies were signing a multiphase agreement with the variety owners. After the test phase, which runs through December 2015, they will have the option to sign a full license agreement.

The licensees have been given the rights to grow the program as they see fit and can select the growers, who could be in other parts of North America as well as Washington.

The INN is not limiting the grower base. Its goal is to have at least 400 acres of Rubens planted in North America, to produce enough fruit for the retail market, but there will be no upper limit on production.

Growers will pay a per-tree royalty that will go to CIV, but a production royalty only kicks in if the season-average f.o.b. (all grades and sizes) for Rubens exceeds the season average f.o.b. for Gala.

Reggie Collins, chief executive officer at Chelan Fruit Growers, said participants felt there was no need to plant Rubens or any other new variety if it was not going to return more to growers than Gala.

“Obviously, we’re looking for something that’s going to return the grower more. The marketers and everybody will have a reason to go out there and absolutely try to hit a home run with this,” he said.

Wade said the unique royalty arrangement was one of the reasons he was interested in acquiring the rights to the variety, along with the fact that Rubens is fairly well proven in Europe and the minimum acreage is quite small.

“I think it’s a very novel approach compared to the fee schedules that you normally see,” he said. “If it underperforms, we don’t have to pay. That’s one of the things that interested us.”

Sizeable risk

Not having to pay for a variety that underperforms helps reduce the risk for the producer, as does sharing the rights with Chelan Fruit Cooperative.

“It’s a sizeable investment and a sizeable risk,” Wade said. “We thought we might as well divide the risk up and explore it as a group. From a market standpoint, we’re cautious because there are still so many varieties of apples out there.”

Snyder said the INN tried to devise a system that would be workable for many of the growers who feel they’ve been excluded from the club apples that have been introduced in recent years.

Dr. Alessio Martinelli, CIV’s research director, said the goal is to have a sustainable chain from the development of the variety through to retail, where everyone involved in the chain receives a return. The licensees will set strict grade standards for fruit to be sold under the Rubens brand.

“If you don’t manage the variety, it’s the grower that’s risking the most,” Martinelli observed.

Wade said the companies involved have a good working relationship and hope to create value and exclusivity with the variety through strong marketing and merchandizing efforts. Rubens won’t be positioned as a year-round apple, but will likely be on sale between harvest, in early September, and January.

“It has potential for more than that, but the plan is to keep the volume relatively small so we can keep a sense of novelty, and be in and out,” he said, noting that its limited availability can be a positive thing. “When you go to the retailer and say, ‘We want to add something to your shelf 12 months of the year, they say, ‘That’s tough. We don’t have room for that.’”

Collins said that he still sees good opportunities for producers with new varieties, because consumers have different tastes and are always looking for something new. However, he does not expect huge volumes to be produced of any one. Some might be niche varieties that are in the stores for a brief time, but they can still generate a high return for the growers.

“We’re currently testing others that are unnamed. We’re going to continue to look for additional opportunities until we find the blue apple that everybody wants,” he joked.