The future looks promising for SugarBee, which has a mild, sweet flavor and stores well. (Courtesy Andrea Nelson)
The future looks promising for SugarBee, which has a mild, sweet flavor and stores well. (Courtesy Andrea Nelson)

What began as a seed of desire to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps has led Chuck Nystrom to find a new apple variety that may become the next big winner for apple growers and consumers alike.

The apple, originally named the B51, was “found” by Nystrom in the early ’90s and is gaining ground in the development and testing phases to becoming commercially available.

“Only God creates it; I found it,” Nystrom said of the apple now being marketed as SugarBee exclusively through Chelan Fresh in Washington state. “I plant the seeds and take care of them.”

Nystrom, owner and manager of Ocheda Orchard in Worthington, Minnesota, has known apples his entire life. As a young child he spent time at his grandfather’s orchard nearby.

Then when his father, Donald Nystrom, decided to branch out and start his very own orchard, Chuck was right there alongside him in the endeavor.

“In 1965 my dad planted the first trees,” said Nystrom, 65. “I skipped school to help him plant.”

He said those first trees were the traditional apples grown in Minnesota — the “Minnesota standbys,” as he calls them. Though he doesn’t remember what exactly they planted, he does remember planting Fireside and the sport Connell Red, in particular.

Even as a teenager he loved farming and wanted to farm for the rest of his life. Yet it was the encouragement of his father to go to college and have another plan just in case. This led him to the very place that developed those “Minnesota standbys” such as the Connell Red/Fireside and Red Haralson — the University of Minnesota.

By the time he finished earning a degree in agricultural engineering, Nystrom was back on the farm in 1972 and learning everything he could about the business, the industry, and the farm his dad had begun just a few years earlier.

It was at an apple grower tour/meeting in the mid-1980s that Nystrom met and began talking to a fellow orchardist, Doug Shefelbine, who highly recommended getting involved in an organization that encouraged developing new varieties.

“It’s an organization of fruits and nuts interested in fruits and nuts,” Nystrom joked, referring to the North American Fruit Explorers.

Shefelbine said that he always recommends fellow orchardists to get involved in the organization because of its value to the industry.

“This is a good organization and one that you can learn so much from,” said Shefelbine, owner and operator of Shefelbine Orchard and Pumpkin Patch in Holmen, Wisconsin.

He said finding new varieties takes time and patience because, for every 10,000 seeds, you may come up with one exceptional variety.

Through the encouragement of the organization, Nystrom followed advice to plant many seeds and see what grew.

Since the beginning he has used the open pollination method, which he’s had good luck with, as evidenced by the growing popularity and buzz around his SugarBee apple, which came from an open-pollinated Honeycrisp tree.

Today, SugarBee has worldwide propagation rights held by Regal Fruit International and is licensed to Chelan Fruit Cooperative in Washington to produce the variety in the United States.

Mac Riggan, director of marketing at Chelan Fresh, said that in the testing phase of the commercial development of the variety it is delivering a consistent eating experience.

In particular, each apple is crispy every time, which is a key attribute to the success or failure of a variety.

He said that it also maintains its flavor and stores well, which is not always the norm with other favorite varieties. And as for post-harvest issues like bitter pit, it hasn’t been seen, he said.

At this time Chelan is mainly in the process of growing trees to grow wood to create more trees for orchards. Trees are being planted as they become available. The first fruit will likely be introduced to the retail market on a limited basis in 2019. “It’s a good apple and is good for our industry,” Riggan said.

Nystrom likes the SugarBee for its milder, sweeter flavor and amazing texture, all components he believes are determining factors to what turns a good apple into an amazing apple.

Yet, SugarBee isn’t the be-all, end-all apple for Nystrom. He prefers a tarter apple. He’s looking for a better flavored tart apple than a Red Haralson.

He continues to plant and care for new seedlings—anywhere from 200 to 300 on average annually—in search of the apple that will suit his taste buds and appeal to the masses.

And, he may just be on to the next best thing aside from Red Haralson. Nystrom said he’s developed a variety that has a nicer finish and a fabulous flavor. It is in the testing phase and a final decision to develop the variety commercially is in the works.

“New variety development is very exciting and satisfying,” Nystrom said. “There’s a lot going on here.” •

—by Andrea Nelson, a freelance writer based in Webster, Minnesota.