A group of apple growers in the Midwest is keeping alive a cooperative effort to develop new disease-resistant apple varieties and are doing the apple breeding themselves on a shoestring budget. They have a number of promising selections.

A cooperative program to develop scab-resistant apples began in 1945 with the formal collaboration of Ralph Shay, plant pathologist at Purdue University in Indiana, and Fredric Hough, a horticulturist at the ­University of Illinois. In 1948, Hough moved to Rutgers in New Jersey, which became a third party in the ­collaboration.

Since then, the PRI (Purdue-Rutgers-Illinois) program has screened about 380,000 seedlings, identified more than 1,500 selections, and named and released 16 apple varieties. Although the program still exists, activity declined in the early 1990s because of reduced financial support from the three universities, according to Dr. Jules Janick, horticulturist at Purdue.

Growers organize

In the late 1990s, a group of fruit growers formed an organization called the Midwest Apple Improvement Association to continue breeding efforts using material from the PRI program as parents for crosses. Mitch Lynd of Lynd Fruit Farm near Columbus, Ohio, said the goals of the MAIA are to develop new apple varieties that taste great, are resistant to diseases, and bloom substantially later than the average bloom date in order to avoid spring frost damage.

The group has about 65 members, of whom about three or four actually do the breeding work. Janick, their mentor, helped them get started and showed them what to do. They gather pollen from the parent cultivars that they want to use and pollinate their trees.

At harvest, they collect the seeds and have them grown into seedlings at a local greenhouse or nursery. The trees are planted out at the Dawes Arboretum at Newark, Ohio, which is a nonprofit entity with 1,700 acres of plant collections and gardens. Advanced selections are budded onto Budagovsky 9 rootstocks to get a better idea of their ­commercial ­potential. “We believe we have at least 20 candidates right now and many, many more that will come on line this fall because we have a lot of Honeycrisp-GoldRush crosses that are fruiting for the first time this year,” he said. “The objective is to get the Honeycrisp texture with the ­GoldRush flavor intensity with disease resistance and late bloom.

“We have found that apple breeding is not terribly complicated,” Lynd added. “It’s not expensive if done right and done well, and we’re finding exciting things. “None of us claim to be apple breeders, and none of us really pretend to know anything about what we’re doing. Maybe we don’t need to know that much. We know what keeps good and what tastes good, and we think we know a pretty good tree when we see one.” The association has no paid employees.

With an annual budget of less than $10,000, it is able to make between 4,000 and 5,000 crosses each year. “We’re not saddled with all the overhead costs of a university,” Lynd commented. “You can do it for a fraction of the cost. Disease resistance is a major goal, Lynd said. Growers want a new variety to be resistant to scab and have some resistance to fireblight and powdery mildew, as well as have great flavor and, ideally, a fantastic appearance.

“If we think it’s a world-class apple that has all the things that the supermarkets want and that the packers want, the intent will be to patent it and club it because only a managed variety, in our mind, will lead to profitability of the growers,” he said. “The competition in commodities is so severe that the opportunity for ­profitability disappears rather quickly.”

If, on the other hand, the apple is of high quality but has marginal appearance, it will probably be released to the public, because it would be likely to be profitable for direct marketers, he said. “Cosmetics are not a high condition of success in the direct-marketing setting,” he said. “Those people don’t need a managed cultivar. They will manage the variety real well. Appearance is irrelevant. Because appearance is irrelevant, it will never be overproduced because the bigger growers, packers, and shippers are not going to be involved.”

Gold standard

MAIA member Doug Shefelbine of Holmen, Wisconsin, who has been breeding apples himself for 25 years, believes Honeycrisp is the gold standard by which all ­varieties will be judged. “That’s what I have to beat in terms of a new variety,” he said. “If the apple doesn’t have a similar texture to Honeycrisp, I don’t think it’s got a future, because in our area, people don’t want anything else.”

Shefelbine, whose orchard is 90 percent Honeycrisp, has close to 40,000 different seedlings in the ground, which were derived from open-pollinated crosses. “I don’t call myself a plant breeder. I’m a seed planter,” he stressed. Though a high-tech breeding program can be far more focused and efficient in its search for a new variety, ­Shefelbine said he has the advantage of more diversity in his selections.

He has been working with Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, Washington, to have promising ­selections propagated and put out to growers for testing. Everyone tells him the chances of him discovering a big variety are one in a million, but Shefelbine thinks he has several selections that compare favorably with Honey­crisp, and one in particular that has the same ­texture, better color, and fewer production problems. •