Top left: Seedlings showing powdery mildew. Bottom left: Bags are used to protect new seedlings from cross pollinization. Right: The Dalitron apple is from the Davodeau-Ligonniere breeding program and named after citron for its unique lemon color.
Bringing a new variety to commercialization involves a host of steps and activities ranging from field evaluation to variety promotion. A young French company focused on variety development has brought together all the facets under one roof.
International Fruit Obtention, a private company located near Angers in France’s Loire Valley, specializes in research and development of apple and pear varieties and rootstocks. Created in 2004, IFO is a joint venture of three French nurseries—Valois, Mondial Fruit Selection, and Davodeau-Ligonniere. The IFO research team includes three pomologists, a manager focused on the prospects and development of new varieties, and two farm managers. During harvest, technicians assist in fruit evaluation.
Though IFO is relatively new, its nursery members are some of the largest in France and have more than 40 years of experience in fruit breeding and evaluation. The three IFO members have a total annual production of 3.5 million trees and 4.5 million rootstocks. They have subsidiary nurseries throughout Europe and are involved in several managed apple varieties, such as Cameo, Jazz, Le Naturianes (Ariane), Honeycrunch, Antares, Choupette, and Pink Lady. They are also grower-packer-shippers, producing about 10,000 metric tons of apples and pears on about 375 acres.
IFO was established to be a partner in variety development, said Emmanuel de Lapparent, manager of IFO. In addition to conducting an apple breeding program and evaluating varieties on about 50 acres, the one-stop shop can help a breeder introduce material through quarantine; apply for trademarks, patents, and plant protection rights; create virus-free material; and conduct taste tests in the marketplace. It can also propagate certified material and develop business and marketing strategies.
A key component of IFO is the exchange and collaboration of selections and varieties with other international breeding programs, de Lapparent explained. They are evaluating varieties representing more than 50 collaborations with French and international breeding programs. IFO is a partner in the International Nursery Network, a group of 12 nurseries that have aligned themselves to share varietal information.
Joris Nicolleau, apple breeder at IFO, looks for apple varieties that are unique in color and flavor and are resistant to diseases and insects. Using traditional breeding methods, his apple crosses result in about 20,000 hybrid seedlings each year. IFO does not have a pear breeding program but evaluates pear selections from other programs.
Since 2005, up to 5,000 hybrid seedlings have been planted each year after screening for scab and mildew in the greenhouse and screenhouse. The seedlings are budded in the orchard on Malling 9 rootstock and are initially evaluated for a range of attributes, including productivity. "We look at crop load and fruit size," said Nicolleau, adding that good production is an important trait. Fruit not meeting quality and taste standards in the field or storage are eliminated from further testing.
"The objective is to find one or more varieties that are interesting and warrant a further look," Nicolleau said. "Usually, out of thousands of seedlings, you can find a couple of crosses that are interesting."
Hybrid seedlings that show something unique in the initial planting enter Level 1, an evaluation stage that takes four to five years. Harvest and storage data are collected during the third, fourth, and fifth leaf. In Level 1, four trees of each selection are planted, and scab resistance is further observed, as trees are only minimally sprayed. About 400 selections of apples and pears are currently in Level 1.
"For a variety to go further to Level 2, we look for one that could have an interest in the European market," Nicolleau said.
The number of trees per selection increases from 4 to 20 if the selection makes the cut to Level 2, a step that can last another five to ten years. Even more extensive evaluation takes place in this stage, collecting data throughout the vegetative cycle, picking fruit at several harvest dates, assessing fruit quality in both regular and controlled atmosphere storage, and conducting at least two evaluations after storage. The variety is also sent to other experimental stations in France and Europe, with fruit and trees shown to industry and retail markets for feedback.
Level 2 serves to confirm the potential of the most promising selections and to establish growing information, said de Lapparent, adding that they also conduct market research and develop marketing strategies. Of the 70 varieties now in Level 2, commercialization of a few of them will likely occur in the next 10 to 15 years, he noted.
The last stage involves precommercial tests, grower and worldwide testing, and numerous steps that are part of a new variety launch. It’s important the variety be tested by growers in pilot orchards and grown under commercial settings, he said, noting that they’ve had disappointment in past selections that made it through Level 2, only to show poor packouts at the grower trial stage and be discarded.
Variety evaluation is an in-depth and long process, taking more than a decade. At the end of the 10- to 20-year evaluation, there may be just ten varieties that are real winners and are commercially released, de Lapparent said. Examples of apples nearing commercial release are Dalitron, a bright, lemon-yellow–colored apple bred by Davodeau-Ligonniere, and new mutations of Gala and Braeburn.
For a satellite view of the IFO orchards, visit www.maps.google.com and type in the coordinates 47.63053N, 0.32720W.