Are there too many apple varieties? Not according to Dr. Kate Evans, Washington State University’s apple breeder, who’s working to develop new and better varieties that will entice people to eat more apples.
Evans sees a need to replace mediocre or problematic varieties that are not faring as well as others.
“We should be raising the quality of the fruit in the marketplace,” she said. “We don’t want to be flooding our growers with varieties that are only as good or not quite as good as existing ones. It needs to be something that’s worth their investment. I think we’re raising the bar in terms of new varieties that are coming out.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is increase consumption and extend the markets. We need to have good quality fruit in order to do that.”
As Evans and her colleagues sift through the many thousands of seedlings she produces each year, they’re not looking for the next Honeycrisp.
They’re looking for a range of new varieties.
“Consumers don’t expect one apple,” Evans said. “It’s very different from working with some other fruits, like strawberries. We’ve got an opportunity to provide a range of apple varieties for a range of consumer demands. Not all consumers want a hard apple. Some consumers prefer Pink Lady to Honeycrisp. Some like Granny Smith and others prefer Red Delicious. I don’t want to be in the position where I’m restricting myself to one type of apple,” she added. “That’s not what an apple breeding program should be doing.”
Honeycrisp was successful because it was different from other varieties and provided a novel eating experience for consumers. But growing Honeycrisp is fraught with difficulties, and high returns to growers are tempered by low packouts.
“One of the things I’m trying to do is focus on having apples that have consistent quality,” said Evans, who subjects her elite selections to batteries of storage tests.
“Can we select material that’s going to be just as good in May as it is in October? Packout is very important. I would find it very difficult with the industry here in Washington to release something now that had a packout like Honeycrisp.”
One of the less important traits is skin color, says Evans, who’s not limiting her search to red varieties.
When the apple industry was dominated by Red and Golden Delicious and Granny Smith several decades ago, many apple breeding programs focused on bicolored apples, because that’s where they saw the opportunity to provide consumers with unique new varieties. Now, most of the new varieties coming onto the market are bicolored or red.
“I would really like to get an improved yellow and an improved green variety,” she said. •