Turns out, Wenatchee is not Washington’s only apple breeding grounds.
A group of Washington State University students in Pullman — far away from the state’s vaunted commercial tree fruit orchards — are breeding cider apples, making spin-off use of a genetic repository planted to provide material for the more formal, celebrated breeding program that released WA 38, the newly released variety to be sold as Cosmic Crisp.
Instructor Cameron Peace, wanting to give his students hands-on training, helped them launch a program that crosses exotic and wild cultivars of apples for traits that might come in handy for local cider enthusiasts.
They call it the Palouse Wild Cider Breeding Program, and the students chose goals both modest and ambitious. First, they want to support hobby orchardists in the Palouse, the wheat-covered hills surrounding WSU’s main campus in Pullman, 200 miles east of Wenatchee. But they also want to provide genetic material for other breeding programs, a “pre-breeding program,” Peace calls it.
Palouse Wild Cider Breeding may be the only such student-led effort in the United States, said Greg Peck, a Cornell University horticulturist specializing in cider apples, though a few private companies breed and many hobbyists try their hand.
Peck has been advocating a more regional approach to supplying the U.S. cider industry that has grown tenfold in the last decade. Only “a handful” of commercial growers produce high-tannin apples favored by the country’s 800 cider makers, he said.
Many of those varieties originated in Europe with different soils, climates, diseases and pests. It’s high time the Palouse and all apple regions come up with their own cultivars.
“It’s a great idea,” he said. “… I can’t wait to taste cider made from their crosses.”
How it started
In 2010, WSU planted copies of the Geneva apple germplasm repository at the Sunrise research orchard near Wenatchee for the established breeding program. Some of the extra trees were planted in Pullman at the Tukey Horticulture Orchard.
They aren’t just typical trees either. They include wild varieties from the hills of Kazakhstan. Some of the trees weep. Some of the fruit has orange flesh.
“We have access to a crazy, crazy amount of different germplasm,” said Tymon James, a senior majoring in integrated plant science.
To capitalize on that genetic diversity in their backyard, Peace convinced seven students in 2014 to take a fruit breeding class and let them choose the goals.
After spitballing ideas — bonsai trees, wood fuel for smoking, potted plants — master’s student Hannah Walters suggested cider apples, an idea unanimously endorsed.
“Because who doesn’t want cider?” she said. Walters now works in research and development for Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee. She and her husband are interested in growing cider apples.
The students then set target characteristics, such as disease resistance, productivity, precocity and the complex, bittersharp and bittersweet, tannin-heavy flavors favored by cider-makers.
The students chose mother trees, picked their fruit, germinated their seeds and propagated seedlings in the greenhouse. Each subsequent spring they make crosses, and along the way, Peace teaches them the use of modern breeding tools, such as DNA-based diagnostics.
Those students may be onto something, said Tim Steury, an apple grower in Potlatch, Idaho, just across the border from Pullman.
He can think of several hobby cider-makers planting their own trees who might want new flavors or disease resistance. “That certainly makes sense,” said Steury, who produces cider apples for Liberty Cider Co. in Spokane.
Meanwhile, though the cider industry already has a lot of added and infused flavors, more from apples would help, said Peter Ringsrud, co-owner of Snowdrift Cider Co. in Wenatchee.
In fact, he and his son and partner, Lars, do their own searches for new varieties, combing roadsides and abandoned homestead trees for chance seedlings, gathering scion wood to propagate and test in trial blocks to broaden their palette of flavors.
“Even 10 percent of those apples (in a blend) would improve the quality of the cider in the Northwest,” he said.
Not only will more diversity make cider better, it will increase the chances of success for farmers as they spread their financial risk away from just monoculture dessert apples, he said.
A few of Peace’s students, including Walters, reached out to Steury and Ringsrud for advice.
Though nothing like the vast commercial production region of Central Washington, the Palouse has a few small commercial apple orchards that rely on farm markets, U-pick operations and cider apples.
Some heritage varieties, such as Kingston Black and Golden Russett, love the region’s soil and cool, dry climate, he said.
Meanwhile, Peace sees benefits beyond just the fruit.
For one, if not for the cider program, students in Pullman would learn only breeding theory. The formal work for dessert apples happens in Wenatchee at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center under the direction of breeder Kate Evans.
Those hands-on opportunities are what attracted James, who is applying to graduate school for fruit breeding.
He actually gets to touch the flowers when performing crosses and gets to make mistakes on his sample collections and DNA extractions in a learning environment. “I can make these mistakes in this environment and it’s OK.”
Peace also wants to encourage more young people to learn to grow food and develop a respect for genetic diversity. Peace is the co-director of RosBREED, a national research project looking for ways to improve fruit breeding techniques.
“There are so many jewels in the genome,” Peace said. •
—by Ross Courtney