Daryl Somers

Daryl Somers

A new apple breeding program was born this year, on the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, Canada.

While operation of the infant program is just beginning, it has nurturing ­parents. The Ontario Apple Growers are backing the program; they want new varieties that potentially could be produced for export in Ontario, which now is a net importer of apples.

The Vineland Research and Innovation Centre is a partner. This aggressive, new nonprofit organization, created in 2006, has the mission of fostering horticultural technology and assuring new products come to market. Its research director for applied genomics is Dr. Daryl Somers, a molecular biologist and geneticist. It also has a “technology scout,” Michael Kauzlaric, and the two, working together, are exploring germ plasm options from around the world.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is also a partner. It has a pear breeding program at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, and Dr. David Hunter, the pear breeder, made the first crosses of apples this spring.

Not only do they want to find desirable parents and breed new apples, they have ­discussed collaboration with other apple-breeding programs at Cornell, University of Minnesota, Washington State University, and the Purdue-Rutgers-Illinois cooperative program to test varieties under development in those programs. The three in the Northeast, especially, share a general vision of what’s needed in apples—resistance to diseases like fireblight and apple scab, cold hardiness, grower friendliness, and consumer appeal like that demonstrated by the ­Minnesota-bred  In an interview with Good Fruit Grower, Somers said that one of the key assets of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre is its business development office. While the center has strong backing from Ontario fruit and vegetable growers and the federal and provincial governments, it also has a world view.

“The Ontario production base is sufficient to support and warrant an apple-breeding program,” Somers said. “But we have the potential to develop varieties of apples and tender fruits at Vineland that will be useful over a wide area.”

Apples are grown in five distinct regions of Ontario, and annual production is about 9 million bushels—about a third as many as New York—but many times the production of Minnesota, which has an old and successful breeding program. At Cornell and at Washington State, breeders have catered to the needs of state growers, ­restricting some new varieties to those growers alone.

Long-term commitment

Kelly Ciceran, manager of Ontario Apple Growers, said that an apple-breeding program at Vineland is a long-term commitment to the future of apple production in Ontario. “It’s a competitive consumer market for apple growers. We need early assessment and access to new varieties, either through in-licensing opportunities or ­discovery research that will give us winners for the future.”

Somers agrees that Ontario growers could produce many more apples than they do, but they need to produce the kind of apples consumers want. The department of consumer insights and product innovation at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, directed by Dr. Isabelle Lesschaeve, will do consumer studies to determine what attributes—tastes, textures, flavors, and colors—they value. That approach has also been taken at Cornell and Washington State.

Out of step

A study conducted for the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre by Deloitte and Touche resulted in a report last year called “the fifteen-year comprehensive plan for the Ontario apple, tender fruit, and fresh grape industry.”

It concluded that, while Ontario is a sizeable market with 13 million affluent produce consumers, fresh fruit consumption has been increasing faster than production.

“An industry strategy is needed, because while fruit consumption in Ontario is increasing, Ontario producers’ market share is declining,” the report said. “Ontario consumers and many retailers feel that Ontario produce is out of step with their expectations, and government ­support is not translating into a vibrant industry.

“To be competitive with efficient and quality-focused global value chains, we need new orchard husbandry practices

[and] new harvesting and quality assurance practices at the producer level; new storage and processing technologies and quality assurance practices at the processor level; new handling and quality assurance practices at the distribution level; and new marketing practices at the consumer level—all of which will require significant investments.”

Both the federal and provincial governments in Canada have developed programs in support of fruit growers to help defray costs of removing outdated vineyards and orchards and planting modern ones. The Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and its business development office were instituted in 2006 to speed up horticultural research discoveries at the Vineland Research Station and translate them into commercial products.

“Ontario has an ideal climate for apple production and is situated geographically very close to one of the largest fruit and vegetable consumer markets in North America,” Somers wrote on the Vineland Web site. “Competition from imported new varieties has put the Ontario apple industry under pressure. Developing new apple cultivars with desirable traits and consumer appeal will help to recapture the domestic market and revitalize the industry.”

In the short term, Vineland has engaged a technology scout to seek out potentially valuable cultivars from around the world and bring them into Ontario for evaluation, he said. In the longer term, the apple-breeding program will use this base as well as new tools, like genomics and marker-assisted breeding, to speed up the breeding process and develop new varieties with enhanced ­consumer appeal and better production traits.