Are the apple varieties produced today the best there could possibly be? Orchardist Jim Doornink of Yakima, Washington, thinks not.
"I can’t believe we have the best apples in the world that you could possibly get right now, and there’s not something better," he said. "Five years ago, we thought we had the best apples around, and now we have Jazz and Honeycrisp. People are saying those are great varieties with great taste and texture, but I can’t believe we can’t do better. If we could take the bitter pit and mildew off Honeycrisp it would be better, so we can do better."
Doornink, who is chair of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, said new varieties have had the greatest impact on the industry since he’s been involved. When he started farming, the Washington industry was dominated by Red and Golden Delicious. Now, when the Red Delicious harvest is over, the industry still has half the crop to harvest.
To succeed in the future, growers will need to be able to switch to new and better varieties quickly, and be able to deliver high quality fruit to the market, he said.
"We have to put all this into a package that optimizes us over everyone else in the world. We’re in a very competitive environment, and people tend to buy things on price. Either we have to win on the price game, or we have to deliver something else in the quality category that will make us a winner when people compare fruits, and it will probably be a combination of those two. I don’t think you can win on one or the other. We have to be continually on the move to make sure that we’re aggressive enough in satisfying the consumer price/quality demand that we can stay in the league."
As Washington growers change varieties, they need new cultivars that are particularly suited to the state’s environment but at the same time are suited to consumers’ wants and desires, he said.
Washington used to excel with Red Delicious. A new variety that satisfies consumers and grows best in Washington would make the whole industry stronger. However, varieties managed under a club system won’t be available to the whole industry.
Doornink said it’s too early to tell whether the club system will be the way varieties are handled for years to come. A club makes it possible to control the supply and manage marketing, but it only involves a segment of the industry.
"I’m not sure if that’s the best solution for the industry as a whole," he said.
If Washington is going to find a new variety that fits its climate, the best chances of getting one are from Washington State University’s breeding program, he believes.
If WSU releases a new variety, it will be the Research Commission’s responsibility to set up a group of decision makers to figure out how to most economically use the new variety, he said.
"These are paramount problems in our industry—how to decide big issues," he said. "I don’t know that we’ve come to a conclusion on how to make universal decisions on how, as an industry, we’re going to act or react on a particular topic because we all have different goals and business plans. How do we get everyone together to make a unanimous decision?"
Growers will also need horticultural systems that allow them to cost-effectively replace their orchards with a limited amount of capital, so they don’t have to spend huge amounts of money to make the changes, he said.
"The more nimble we are in the market to do these things, and the more quickly we can change before our competitors change, the better off we will be," he said. "Maybe we can cut down the time to the first crop by a year or two and the cost by $5,000 per acre. This would be a huge accomplishment."