Poland’s number-one apple variety, Idared, is a legacy from an educational exchange between Poland and the United States that began during the Communist era.
Dr. Augustyn Mika, professor at the Research Institute of Pomology and Floriculture in Skierniewice, said that after the Second World War, when Poland was part of the Soviet bloc, the country was completely cut off from the West.
"In the 1950s, you could go to prison if you had some correspondence with a Western country," he recalled. "It was forbidden to have any contact with an embassy in a western country. It was very unsafe to have some dollars in your office or in your pocket."
During those difficult times, Dr. Szczepan Pienążek, founder and former director of the Skiernievice Institute, made contact with the Church of the Brethren in the United States and arranged to send Polish students or researchers to orchards, nurseries, and universities in the United States. Between 1956 and 2000, more than 1,000 Polish people were educated in the United States through this connection. As a result, agricultural science and practical fruit growing in Poland improved quickly, said Mika, who spent two years at East Malling in England in the 1960s, and also visited Michigan, Washington, and California.
This collaboration resulted in the Polish fruit industry adopting U.S. technology and growing varieties such as Idared, Spartan, McIntosh, Melba, Cortland, Empire, Golden Delicious, and Red Delicious. The trees were on vigorous rootstocks and widely spaced.
Orchardist Krzysztof Hermanowicz said he was lucky to be one of the members of the exchange program. He worked at Auvil Fruit Company in Orondo, Washington in 1975–1976.
"I am proud that I could work for this company and I could meet Grady Auvil," he said. "At that time we were living behind the Iron Curtain and travel abroad was something unusual. Travel to the United States I can compare to travel to the moon."
Pienążek, who was highly ranked in the Ministry of Agriculture, organized the exchanges, arranged for visas and passports, and decided where each person should go.
Hermanowicz said the experience changed his life and his opinion about work. The visits to the United States had an economic impact, too, on participants. "It was not only what they could learn about freedom and the free market, but some money was involved."
Hermanowicz recalled that Auvil Fruit Company paid him $2.50 an hour to begin with, rising to $2.75 an hour. He made $5,000 for the whole year. After spending money on travel around the United States, he was able to take home around $3,500.
"I was extremely rich at that time. When I came back, I decided to start a fruit business," said Hermanowicz, who had previously worked at the Institute of Pomology. "Because of this journey to the United States, I became a fruit grower and am what I am today.
"Over a thousand young people and researchers had a chance to see a free country and travel and speak with other people. Most of us are still in the industry and we’re a group of influential people that today are deciding about the shape of Polish agriculture and the Polish fruit business."
During the late 1980s, growers in Europe were starting to use dwarfing rootstocks and plant orchards more intensively. In the winter of 1986-87, just before the fall of Communism, Poland experienced a severe freeze, with temperatures down to –40°C (–40°F). Most trees were frozen to the ground and few survived, Mika related.
"That should be a disaster for our fruit growing, but it wasn’t, because at that time people started to plant new orchard and they started to use dwarfing rootstocks and very dense plantings," Mika said. "Instead of disaster, we had very intensive development to modern fruit growing. In ten years, production went strongly up."
Although Poland had a good rootstock-breeding program, most Polish growers went with Malling 9, he said. They considered the Polish P.22 to be too dwarfing, and thought P.16 not hardy enough.
"After the Iron Curtain was opened, we started contact with the European fruit industries," Hermanowicz recalled. "We were influenced mainly by the Dutch and Belgians and started planting European varieties like Jonagold, Elstar, Boskoop, and Cox.
"We’re still changing," he added. "We observe that some of the varieties become bigger players on the world market, so we started planting varieties like Gala. We’re interested in managed varieties and the so-called club varieties, but today the main Polish variety is Idared because it’s the Polish export flagship variety."
There’s also significant production of Ligol and Sampion (Szampion) for export to the former Soviet countries. Mika said Ligol, which was bred in Poland is a large, hard, very attractive apple that stores well and appeals to young people. However, it’s not easy to grow because it requires careful pruning and thinning to avoid biennial bearing. Sampion, from the Czech Republic, is also popular in Poland during the fall and early winter. It has good eating quality but can’t be stored for a long time.
Hermanowicz said late-maturing varieties, such as Braeburn, Fuji, and Pink Lady, are not suitable for Poland’s short growing season. Some growers have tried them but not been successful.
Growers who export to Western Europe are focusing on Gala, he said. There’s also a big interest in scab-resistant varieties for organic production, and many disease-resistant Polish and Czech varieties are under trial.
While different groups of consumers are interested in different apples, supermarkets are less enthusiastic about selling many different varieties, Hermanowicz lamented. "They’re trying to have as little variety as possible. They want a red apple, a green apple, and a yellow apple. They’re not interested in big numbers of items on the shelf."
Hermanowicz is transitioning to fewer varieties on his 30 hectares (75 acres) of orchard at Dalboszek. When he started out in the 1970s, he had only the U.S and Canadian varieties McIntosh, Jonathan, Idared, Spartan, and Empire, which grew well in his climate and soil conditions.
By the 1980s and 1990s, his orchard was made up of Jonagold, Sampion, Boskoop, Koksa, Golden Delicious, Gloster, Sunrise, Jerseymac, and Elstar.
In the future, he’ll have just four varieties: Gala, Empire, Gloster, and Idared.