Members of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission's study tour  stand in front of HortResearch Havelock North (from left): Chuck Peters, Ray Schmitten, Kyle Mathison (kneeling), Dain Craver, Bryce Molesworth, Tom Butler, Jim McFerson, Jim Koempel,

Members of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission’s study tour stand in front of HortResearch Havelock North (from left): Chuck Peters, Ray Schmitten, Kyle Mathison (kneeling), Dain Craver, Bryce Molesworth, Tom Butler, Jim McFerson, Jim Koempel,

Gum trees—the ever-present reminders of what the Australians call “the bush,” and the first notable indication of a land very distant and very different from the familiar desert steppe sagebrush of Washington State.

What urged me and nine tree fruit colleagues to venture over the Pacific Ocean, across the dateline, and south of the equator to down under? It was the lure of genes and genetics, and all the fantastic potential those words may embody for tree fruit growers in Washington State and worldwide.

The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission’s study tour focused on the apple and pear breeding and testing programs in Australia and New Zealand. But first, we had a little catching up to do with an old friend.

Chris Peters, a familiar face in a distant land, met us at the Melbourne airport. Chris left Washington State about eight months previous in order to take a position as an orchard business manager for Montague Fresh, a large, family-owned growing, packing, and marketing organization based in Narre Warren, southeast of Melbourne.

Montague has around 3,000 acres, about evenly split between apples and summer fruit (plum, peach, and nectarine). Growing fruit in Australia has its challenges, not least of which are a shortage of water, thin soils, pesky birds, and fierce competition in the marketplace.

Montague has developed strategies for maintaining profitability in the face of those challenges, among them removing old apple cultivars such as Red Delicious and upgrading to new cultivars such as Rosy Glow and Sundowner. That leads Montague to participate in Apple & Pear Australia Limited, which is the top tree fruit industry group representing pear and apple growers in Australia, not unlike the U.S. Apple Association here in the states.

Enhanced eating experience

Apple & Pear Australia Limited is concerned with helping commercial growers across Australia stay profitable through active participation in a full range of legislative, regulatory and economic strategies. And among the activities recently embarked upon is Apple & Pear Australia’s participation in Prevar (or Premium Varieties), a multinational, cultivar-commercializing organization formed late 2004 and headquartered in New Zealand. Prevar is focused on
providing consumers with an enhanced apple and pear eating experience.

Prevar brought together four horticulture based partners in order to develop a line of apple and pear cultivars with a focus on good eating quality, high health benefits, and reduced need for pesticides through plant breeding for insect and disease resistance. The four participating partners of Prevar are:

—Apple & Pear Australia Limited, through its affiliation and cooperation with Horticulture Australia Limited and the Australian Pome Fruit Improvement Program Limited.

—PipFruit New Zealand, a grower-funded research entity.

—Allied International Group of Nurseries.

—HortResearch, New Zealand’s national research program.

The Australian Pome Fruit Improvement Program Limited is the entity charged with managing the testing of new apple and pear cultivars for Prevar in Australia. We spent a day touring commercial orchards in Victoria with the program’s national coordinator Garry Langford and evaluation manager Greg Crammond. During the course of the tour, we stopped at one of Prevar’s orchard evaluation sites in northern Victoria and were briefed by Garry and Greg on the cultivar testing procedure.

Cultivar testing is tightly managed, and all information is confidential, down to the point of growers not knowing either the varieties they have for testing within their orchard, or the whereabouts of other test sites scattered about the fruit-growing states of Australia. All horticultural and fruit-quality information for a test cultivar is housed in a central database, with data collected over a seven-year period. If at the end of seven years, the cultivar is not performing to expectations in terms of fruit quality, it is removed from the program. The program is overseeing the testing of 85 apple and 12 pear cultivars in 14 locations across six Australian states.

Breeding program

Testing a cultivar once it is available is one thing, but getting a cultivar to the point of testing is another. And to find the breeding program supplying the test cultivars to Prevar, the study group and I traveled to New Zealand and its renowned research institution HortResearch. At the HortResearch Havelock North station, we were able to glimpse and taste the next potential generations of apples and pears that may be contenders in growers’ urgent scramble for profitable apple and pear cultivars.

Success in fruit breeding is not just a simple matter of making a few crosses of varieties that seem interesting to the plant breeder. It may have started out that way when scientific curiosity was the main driver behind doing the crosses in the first place, but, unfortunately, that is no longer the case—in fact, far from it in this world of economic cycles on steroids.

Today’s plant breeder has to make good decisions about every step in the process. That means not only making good choices about the parents to use in order to hit certain desirable internal and external quality parameters, but also excellent decisions about how to build in such things as pest resistance, precocity, growth habit, and a whole range of genetically controlled desirable traits.

And, by the way, this has to be done fast—faster than ever—in order to deliver new cultivars of apples and pears to consumers who are used to changing cell phones and computers almost annually. Say good-bye to 25 years from initial cross to commercial grower; hello to 10 to 15 years…or less.

And that is the essence of the work and supporting systems to the breeding program at HortResearch. A cultivar production system if you will, and, as explained to us by plant breeders Allan White and Richard Volz, a system that relies heavily on the underpinning scientific support of three branches of HortResearch: consumer research headed by Dr. Roger Harker at the Mt. Albert lab in Auckland; genomics (gene markers/gene mapping) headed by Dr. Sue Gardiner at the Palmerston North lab on the Massey University campus; and tree fruit physiology headed by Dr. Stuart Tustin at the Havelock North lab.

One generation

The information developed by these supporting programs feeds directly into the Cultivar Breeding Program and is integral to helping the breeders make the right choices the first time around. Ultimately, the supporting science leads to a decrease in the period of time required for the plant breeder to move from a group of plants (germplasm), each one possessing a desirable trait, to a single cultivar expressing all the desirable traits and ready to move out to Prevar for commercial trials. So focused is the HortResearch cultivar production system, that the goal is to achieve production of a commercial cultivar in just one generation.