Retired WSU apple breeder Dr. Bruce Barritt checks another promising selection in an evaluation plot in a commercial orchard.
Washington State University has granted an exclusive license for its first apple variety to the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which plans to make it available to any Washington State grower.
Inventions by WSU faculty, including fruit varieties, become the property of the WSU Research Foundation. Under an agreement reached this fall, the foundation will grant the exclusive license for its first new apple variety, known as “WA 2,” to the Research Commission, which will set up a nonprofit organization to manage the commercialization of WSU varieties. The management entity will receive the master license for WSU’s future apple releases, according to Dr. Tom Kelly at the Research Foundation’s Office of Intellectual Property Administration.
WSU applied for a patent for WA 2 in March this year. The apple is bicolored with distinctive, conspicuous lenticels. It has a good balance of sweetness and acidity, but its most important attribute, according to breeder Dr. Bruce Barritt, is its texture. It is firm, crisp, and juicy, and stays firm in storage and on the shelf.
“It doesn’t go soft and mealy at all,” said Barritt, who believes the variety has as much potential as Gala and Fuji.
The evaluation and commercialization guidelines agreed upon by the WSU Research Foundation and the Research Commission took a couple of years to negotiate. As the final version was drawn up in August, it became apparent that the Research Commission’s enabling legislation did not allow it to hold the license, as currently defined, or to set up a nonprofit organization to manage the variety.
Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission, said he was working with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and the Washington State Department of Agriculture to pursue legislation in the next session to modify the commission’s enabling statute and allow the plan to go forward. He does not believe that this will delay commercialization of WA 2. The commission will start working on the management concept, even though it can’t sign an agreement with the university yet.
“We intend to move through the process and do exactly what we need to do to achieve the agreed-upon goals,” McFerson said. “It changes nothing about what we have agreed to do with WSU. As long as we’re being diligent about the propagation of material for commercialization, so we ramp up that availability, I don’t see this as forestalling commercialization in any way.”
The management entity will likely be modeled after the grower-controlled Potato Variety Management Institute set up by the Oregon, Washington, and Idaho potato industries. The PVMI’s goals are to:
• Exert grower control over varieties developed through grower-supported research.
• Work with the processing, grocery, and restaurant trade to increase adoption of new varieties.
• Use market research to focus variety development goals
• Manage distribution and use of varieties around the world
• Return royalties to the potato breeding program
The apple management entity will be composed of apple producers, along with nonindustry members who can bring outside expertise from the financial or retail sectors, for example.
Willow Drive Nursery in Ephrata, Washington, has been propagating trees of WSU’s advanced selections for evaluation. When up and running, the management entity will fund the propagation of advanced selections and virus testing out of the fees growers pay for evaluation rights. The Research Commission is paying for propagation in the meantime.
Ten advanced selections, including WA 2, have been planted in small numbers in the orchards of four grower cooperators in Brewster, Quincy, Mattawa, and Prosser, Washington. This is Phase 3 of the evaluation and commercialization process.
Around 8,000 trees of WA 2 on the Malling 9 rootstock will be available next spring for widescale evaluation in commercial orchards (Phase 4). The nursery is using certified virus-free stock to produce about 500 trees of WA 2 on vigorous rootstocks that will become the mother trees in a foundation block for commercial nursery tree propagation in the future.
Brent Milne, a member of the Research Commission and chair of the breeding program’s Industry Advisory Council, said trees probably would not be available for commercial plantings (Phase 5) until 2014 or 2015.
Milne said the evaluation and commercialization guidelines would provide a framework for the commercialization of other varieties from the program, in addition to WA 2. They encapsulate three goals he felt were important for the industry. They:
• Provide a way to safeguard WSU’s intellectual property
• Ensure transparency of the process
• Ensure equal access to the materials from the breeding program for all Washington growers
WSU’s apple breeding program began in 1994, with financial support from the Research Commission. Since the program had no trees to use as potential parents at first, Barritt used seeds collected from the orchard of the late Doyle Fleming at Orondo, Washington. WA 2 came from a seed of an open-pollinated Splendour apple from a tree in the middle of a Gala orchard. It is possible, therefore, that it is a Splendour-Gala cross, like Aurora Golden Gala and Nicola from British Columbia and the New Zealand variety Pacific Rose. Dr. Kate Evans took over as breeder when Barritt retired last year, but Barritt is considered the inventor of WA 2.
Kelly said that as the university looked at how to commercialize WSU’s new apples, it considered many different scenarios, including inviting bids from entities interested in managing the varieties. “Every scenario you can imagine was thought about,” he said.
Dr. Ralph Cavalieri, director of WSU’s agricultural research center in Pullman, said many agencies that fund research ask for the first right to negotiate a license, and the Research Commission provided most of the external funding for the breeding program.
Kelly said it would be up to the commission to set up the management entity and decide how the varieties are to be managed.
“This is the first variety we have, and it’s taken a while to figure out what to do. If we were a private business we could do what we want, and do it in the most profitable way,” he said. “We’re not after profits. We’re working with the Tree Fruit Research Commission in general to do what’s best for the industry.”
McFerson said he believes that the proposed process for commercializing the varieties is what growers want, even though it is a new approach for the Research Commission to partner with another institution in this way.
“We need to do things differently,” he said. “As long as we scrupulously stay away from promotion and marketing, I think that our grower community is supportive of our efforts.”
Royalties from varieties that go into commercial production will be distributed by the WSU Research Foundation on the same basis as other WSU inventions. The foundation will deduct the costs of obtaining and maintaining legal protection for each variety. Fifty percent of the remaining income will be distributed to the Agricultural Research Center to support the breeding program; Barritt will receive 30 percent; and the Research Foundation and the ARC will each receive 10 percent.