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The arrival of the Washington State University-bred Cosmic Crisp apple in grocery stores later this year continues a groundswell of support for new varieties by an industry that, as little as a decade ago, was perceived as offering consumers few options.

Washington State University breeder Bruce Barritt bred the Cosmic Crisp, a cross of Enterprise and Honeycrisp, which means it traces its lineage to another apple breeder, David Bedford from the University of Minnesota. Bedford helped develop Honeycrisp, the apple that didn’t just shake up the apple market, it overturned the entire basket, setting the stage for a renaissance of sorts in consumer-focused apple breeding.

Even though these two varieties are intrinsically bound by genetics, they were bred during two different research eras.

Honeycrisp’s discovery came from a century-old breeding program focused on developing cold-hardy germplasm that could survive the harsh Minnesota winters of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

For the good part of its first 90 years, UM’s program slowly developed selections of apple germplasm by growing seedlings and measuring traits over several decades, if not longer. Honeycrisp was developed in that older system, and Bedford, who was initially unsure of its success, helped launch the variety when American store shelves were basically defined by three colors of apples.

Cosmic Crisp, however, came from a program led by Barritt in the mid-’90s. That program, not burdened by age-old traditions, relied on innovations, using precocious apple rootstocks to help WSU catch up to the dominant programs in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

Both Bedford and Barritt helped shape their respective apple breeding programs and through their work have contributed to redefining how apple breeding is done today.

They shared some of their thoughts during the Washington State Tree Fruit Association’s annual meeting in December, in an interview that has been edited for length and clarity. For more from this interview, visit Good Fruit Grower online at goodfruit.com/media.

Harvested bins of Honeycrisp, left, and Cosmic Crisp, right. (Photos by TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Harvested bins of Honeycrisp, left, and Cosmic Crisp, right. (Photos by TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

What helped each of your breeding programs find success?

Barritt: We started late and were in a hurry. I immediately decided that every seedling that we were going to evaluate in the program was going on a precocious rootstock, a Malling 9 rootstock. For every seedling we grew, we budded it onto M.9 so we’d be in production as quickly as possible.

The other thing was the decision that no seedlings should be in the evaluation orchard more than four years — to force us to make quick decisions. If it didn’t impress us in four years, then it was gone.

Bedford: During the first 90 years of our program, seedlings were evaluated on their own roots, the old-fashioned way. Sometimes those trees would take eight to 10 years to come into bearing and another 10 years to complete the cycle of evaluation in those blocks.

So about 22 years ago, we switched over to a system like what Bruce described, but we put all of our seedlings on Budagovsky 9. We’d use a very high-density, double-row system with about 3,000 trees per acre.

Can you describe these newer, intense breeding regimens?

Bedford: Honeycrisp was a product of that old system. For example, the beginning of the Honeycrisp breeding until the commercial release was a 30-year period.

Now, using the techniques that Bruce described, we’re down to a 20-year cycle. I think our most recent release took 17 years. Though we’ve made improvements, we are still fighting the sheer numbers behind a successful outcome. It’s still about a 1-in-10,000 success rate.

For every 10,000 trees that we put into the field, one of those is good enough to go all the way to the finish line and be released. We still struggle with the fact that finding a new variety is a long shot. I used to give a tree three years — a three-strikes-you’re-out policy. Well, that went down to two strikes, and now it’s down to one strike mostly.

Barritt: Another reason for putting these on dwarfing rootstocks was because that is where the industry was going. Our approach was to test these trees almost like they were in a commercial orchard environment.

No one is growing seedlings any more. We really don’t care how well our new variety does as a seedling. It’s just another advantage for the programs to move toward dwarfing rootstocks.

Is there a moment when you realize an apple will be successful?

Bedford: The fact is we throw away, just in that first-round evaluation, 99.6 percent of all material. So, you don’t get many “wow” moments. You don’t even get many “aha” moments. It’s mostly, “oof.”

Barritt: The other thing to consider about tasting in the field is that it’s only part of the process and it’s not what the consumer will experience. The consumer doesn’t necessarily get to experience apples in the field. So, an apple that tastes pretty good in the field, like a Gala, may test well in the field, but it’s important how it tastes two or three months out of storage.

The “wow” moment for me occurs about two or three months out of storage, after two or three years of tree growth. It’s a delayed “aha.”

Bedford: I’d agree with Bruce that I don’t have that “wow” moment until we have multiple years of data. Then we can relax and say, “OK, this isn’t just a bad blind date. This is actually going to work out.”

What qualities do you see in a successful breeding program?

Barritt: It’s a deliberate program of tasks and events that you just have to follow. We don’t think we’re going to find things on the basis of chance. It’s the numbers that will tell you if something was firm all the time, if it was firm two months after storage, if it was firm six months after storage.

It’s not just a numbers game in terms of probability of finding something, but the numbers also help determine which ones are best. At the end of the year, after looking at a sample maybe three times, the numbers will tell you whether you’ve got something or not. You have to be ruthless.

Bedford: As Bruce points out, it’s really about organization. We’re scientists. No matter what great hopes we had for that cross, sometimes you get nothing from it. A program needs to be, I guess, dispassionate enough to throw the near misses away, and still be excited when you do find the good ones.

What helps shape your breeding perspectives?

Bedford: I have many “wow” moments, but even those few that taste good in the field end up breaking your heart sooner or later.

With Honeycrisp, I was so young in my career that I didn’t fully understand what it was. I recognized it was different, but I didn’t have 40 years of experience to say, “Oh wow, that is just so much better.” So, it took me a while to figure out whether different was good or bad.

The closest I can relate to the Honeycrisp texture at that time was an Asian pear. I liked Asian pears, so I remember thinking it was good, but this texture doesn’t belong in an apple. It took me a little time to work that sentiment out.

I always say that we have about 20 characteristics we’re trying to get right in a selection — and I’ve never found a selection that had all of those boxes checked perfectly. Our products are imperfect, but when we get enough of those boxes checked then we can feel good about them.

Barritt: The consumer is so important here. The person who actually puts the money on the table is the one you’ve got to impress — the consumer. Honeycrisp came from nowhere and was built up by consumer experience. That’s the driving force for us now — what the consumer will appreciate after long-term storage.

What’s the future for consumers then?

Bedford: We’ve come a long way from the days when we only had two questionable apples. Could we be getting to the point of oversaturation? I don’t know.

In November I went to a Minnesota grocery store where there were 14 varieties. Across the aisle, they had a sign that read, “Come and shop through our 99 different varieties of yogurt.” I see that and think we may still be a bit behind the curve.

I think the future will involve making apples more presentable to consumers. What we’re competing with is fast snack foods that are easy to eat and have millions of dollars of promotions. The apple market is still very primitive in that sense. As long as we continue to treat consumers with trust and give them quality fruit, then we can move apples from being just a healthy food item.

Barritt: We have come a long way. Compared to what you and I started with — red, yellow and green. We’ve been both trying really hard to improve the flavor profile for consumers.

I think we should feel confident that we’re giving people good products now. We’re giving the consumer something they didn’t necessarily know they wanted and they seem to be happy about it. •

—by TJ Mullinax