How growing and marketing apples turned industrial

It’s apple season. A few years ago John Seabrook wrote a great history of the growing, distribution, and marketing of apples. It features the new breed SweeTango, which is nearly an industrial product which enjoys many IP protections and a sophisticated multi-national distribution strategy. The piece features lots of reporting and plenty of Red Delicious bashing, while the best part is about how new breeds are discovered. Here are some excerpts.

The history of apples in America…

Malus pumila, of the family Rosaceae and the tribe Pyreae, was domesticated some four thousand years ago, in the fruit forests of what is now southeastern Kazakhstan, near the city of Almaty. Frank Browning, the author of “Apples,” reports seeing apple trees growing up through cracks in the pavement there. The wild horses of the nearby steppe liked to eat apples, and could cover long distances, carrying the seeds in their guts. Apples travelled westward along trade routes, and show up in Persia around the time of Alexander the Great, and in Europe not long after; the Romans cultivated them widely. (The apple in the Garden of Eden was most likely a pomegranate, or possibly an orange.) The species came to the New World with the first European settlers, in the form of seeds, and the pioneers, as they pushed westward, took apples with them.

As the industry moved away from cider-making and toward table fruit, some of these apples were named, propagated by cloning—the method of grafting a piece of one tree onto the trunk of another, which produces fruit that is an exact genetic copy of the first tree’s—and promoted like pop stars. The Northeast had Jonathan, Esopus Spitzenburg, and Blue Pearmain (Thoreau’s favorite); the South claimed Winesap, Sally Gray, and Disharoon; the Midwest boasted Hawkeye and Detroit Red; and from the West came the Gravenstein and the Yellow Newtown Pippin. Their flavors were shaped by their respective climates—the shorter the growing season the tarter the apples tended to be.

In the twenties and thirties, refrigerated railcars allowed growers to transport apples over great distances, and, thanks to cold-storage warehouses, wholesalers and retailers could keep them for long periods of time. As regional markets gave way to supermarket chains, the number of available apple varieties shrank, and those which endured shed their regional associations. By the nineteen-sixties, most supermarkets carried three types of apple: McIntosh, a small, tart apple that John McIntosh had found growing on his farm in Ontario, Canada, in 1811; Red Delicious, originally the Hawkeye, a sweet apple discovered on a farm in Iowa in the eighteen-seventies; and Golden Delicious, found in a hay field in West Virginia in the eighteen-nineties. Apple breeders tweaked these apples, to enhance their industrial potential—they had to be durable, long-lasting, and attractive—generally at the expense of texture and taste (unlike many fruits, apples can look wonderful and taste terrible, and so they lend themselves to horticultural sleight of hand).

In the United States, apple production happens mainly in the shoulders of the nation—Washington State is the largest producer, and New York is the next largest. Not surprisingly, each of those states has a breeding program, at Washington State University and at Cornell. Minnesota is twenty-third among the twenty-nine apple-growing states, in volume of production; up through the eighteen-fifties almost no apples grew there, because it was too cold. Its breeding program was born not of abundance but of necessity. “I wouldn’t live in Minnesota,” Horace Greeley once said, while visiting the state, “because you can’t grow apples here.” That remark inspired a cantankerous apple breeder named Peter Gideon to prove Greeley wrong with an apple he named Wealthy, after his wife. The success of the Wealthy apple, introduced in 1861 and still grown in heritage orchards around the country, was the inspiration for the university’s apple-breeding program, in 1878, which was followed by the founding of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, where Bedford works. The station was built with funds authorized by the Hatch Act of 1887, which provided research-and-development money to land-grant universities for the promotion of agriculture.

How the apple market took off…

When Bedford assumed control of the apple-breeding program, in the early eighties, the U.S. apple industry was poised for a profound transformation. Something like the pre-industrial world of apples, where an apple lover had the choice of many varieties, was returning, not through heirlooms but through new breeds of super apples from other countries. Instead of standing mostly for places and people, the new apples would stand for images, sounds, and ideas—Royal Gala, Pink Lady, Jazz. This transformation had begun in 1975, when a Washington grower named Grady Auvil introduced a tart, green, hard-fleshed apple originally from Australia that Maria Ann Smith, a farmer’s wife, had discovered growing on the family’s compost pile in New South Wales, in the eighteen-sixties. The Granny Smith apple was widely propagated in New Zealand, became famous in the United Kingdom in the nineteen-sixties as the logo on the Beatles’ Apple Records, and, on arriving in the United States, expanded the pantheon of supermarket apples to four, demonstrating to apple breeders everywhere that U.S. consumers would respond favorably to a new apple. In the early seventies, President Nixon had imposed price freezes on all foods except fresh produce. Grocery retailers, looking to increase profits, expanded their produce sections. After controls were lifted, they continued to seek out new varieties of fruits and vegetables that could be marketed at a premium.

In the eighties, the Fuji, a large, sweet apple that was originally bred in Japan, was brought to the U.S., and quickly caught on. That decade, Braeburn and Gala apples, both from New Zealand, were also introduced to the U.S., to great acclaim; the Gala is now one of the most popular apples in many parts of the country. To Bedford these successes demonstrated that “if the consumer is given choices, and if they realize, by eating some of these apples, how good an apple can be, then the market can’t keep supplying lousy apples, because the consumer is not going to tolerate that.” The other thing the new apples proved, Bedford added, was that “an apple doesn’t have to look that good. The original Fuji was an ugly apple. It showed that if the flavor was pleasing, the customer could get past the appearance.” Meanwhile, Red Delicious began to decline. Washington produced roughly sixty million bushels in 1995; the state produces a little more than half that much now. In 2002, Congress spent ninety-two million dollars to assist struggling apple growers.

How new breeds are discovered…

Bedford’s apple laboratory, a thirty-acre parcel of rolling land about thirty miles west of Minneapolis, is planted with about twenty thousand apple trees. In May, during blossom time, Bedford and his student assistants make crosses between promising varieties: taking pollen from one variety and swabbing it onto the stamen of another, and then bagging those flowers to keep pollen from other trees out. Although the apple that grows on that branch will be true to the mother tree’s DNA, the seeds will be heterozygous, combining equal and unique parts of both parents’ genes so that every seed is distinct—another thing apple trees and humans have in common. Bedford hopes to get the best characteristics of both parents into the offspring, while producing an apple with an identity all its own. “Some apples look great but don’t pass those traits on,” he told me, “while others are not so great-looking but make good parents.” Each one of the three to five thousand seeds that result from a season of crosses will be unlike all the others and will produce a different tree. Bedford plants the seeds in a greenhouse, and grafts the budding trees onto outdoor rootstock the following summer. In about five years, he will have four thousand or so brand-new apples to taste.

In the fall, during the apple harvest, Bedford tastes apples from blossom times past, up to five hundred apples a day, in the hope of finding that one apple in ten thousand that will be released as a commercial variety. I spent an afternoon with him in early September, walking through long rows of young trees, and tasting apples of every imaginable size, shape, hue, and flavor, from musky melonlike apples to bright lemony apples and apples that tasted like licorice. “We don’t actually swallow, and we don’t really even have time to spit,” Bedford explained. “You just kind of hold a bit in your mouth for a while, until you get the flavor, and then let it fall out.”

If a tree produces exceptionally good apples for several years in a row, it achieves élite status and is awarded a number. Four clones are made from the mother tree’s wood, and those trees are grown in another orchard on the property, under commercial conditions. To evaluate the élite trees, Bedford carries a field notebook with twenty categories on a page, which, in addition to the “organoleptics”—all the sensory stuff, like flavor, texture, and color—include tree size, shape, and yield. He scores each category from one to nine. He generally continues these yearly evaluations for a decade or longer, in order to subject the trees to a representative range of extreme summers and winters and drought and flood, and in the hope of ferreting out all the quirks that apple trees are heir to. Some are wild in their youth but eventually settle down, while others bear fruit every other year; some bear smaller fruits as the trees age, while others drop their apples before they’re ripe.

Finally, a truly outstanding apple is named, the tree is patented, and clones are released to nurseries, where thousands of copies of the trees are made and sold to growers, for which the university collects a royalty of around a dollar per tree during the life of the patent. Large color posters of the five apples released during Bedford’s time at the agricultural station decorate his office, their swollen flesh glistening with beads of moisture, like centerfold pinups in a mechanic’s shop.

As we walked the rows, Bedford carried a can of orange spray paint. If an apple wasn’t reasonably tasty—and only two of the scores of varieties we tasted made the grade—and if he determined the apple to be fully ripe (which he did by cutting it open with a long-bladed knife and spraying iodine on the flesh; the starch in an unripe apple will turn black) then he coldly marked the tree for extermination by spraying orange paint on its trunk. That day, I watched him terminate dozens of unique hybrids whose like the world will never see again, and by the end of the day I had a newfound respect for the breeder as the godlike master of his domain, the ultimate arbiter of life and death in the orchard.

Why SweeTango is so special…

“What’s amazing about Honeycrisp,” Brian Nicholson, the president of Red Jacket Orchards, in New York’s Finger Lakes region, told me recently, “is that it brings in people who don’t even like apples that much—people who prefer peaches or berries or whatever. So it just expands the apple’s share of the fruit basket, and that helps all growers.” The patent, which expired in 2008, combined with sales rights abroad, earned the University of Minnesota more than ten million dollars in royalties, making it the third-most-valuable invention ever produced there, after Ziagen, a drug used to treat H.I.V., and a vaccine that prevents P.R.R.S., a reproductive and respiratory virus in pigs. In 2006, the Association of University Technology Managers named Honeycrisp one of twenty-five innovations that changed the world, along with Google and the V-chip.

How Gala suffered from “red drift”…

As the Gala caught on around the country, however, and more acreage was planted, the same market forces that had destroyed the Red Delicious began to sap flavor from the Gala. As Courtier said, “Once enough trees get planted in the ground, a certain number of them are going to be different. You get what we call ‘sports,’ or limb mutations. Growers look for mutations that are redder—retailers like them because they think customers buy with their eyes. The original Gala was a yellow apple with a red cheek on it, but they started to get redder, and they got called Royal Gala, and then Regal Gala—each one redder than the last.” A solid-red apple also hides bruises, so it is going to get the highest “pack-out”— the fewest number of apples lost to cosmetic defects. “It doesn’t matter if the apple is green on the inside when the marketplace is telling you that color is more important than taste,” Courtier said.

How SweeTango is restricting supply to preserve quality…

But still there were problems. “Terroir turned out to be very important for this apple,” Courtier explained. “A lot of growers just grew it in the wrong spot, or didn’t know how to grow it at all. Hey, these things don’t come with an owner’s manual! Also, it’s a mid-to-late-September apple, but some growers started jumping the market by harvesting unripe apples in early September.” The quality varied widely, and as consumers found they could not count on the Honeycrisp crunch every time, the brand suffered. And, despite Courtier’s best efforts, “red drift” began to set in. “You can see them getting redder,” he said. “The wheel is turning again, and one day the red sports will take over and Honeycrisp will be just as flavorless as the next apple.”

But instead of an “open release,” which meant that anyone could grow the apple, the university decided to release MN 1914 as a “managed variety,” or what’s known in the business as a “club apple.” The university would grant a license to an outside company, which would establish a consortium that could market and grow the apple nationally. Growers could apply to the consortium for permission to grow the apple and, if accepted, would be obliged to sign a lengthy contract stipulating how and where they could grow it, as well as where they could sell it.

Managed varieties of apple had been pioneered by Australia’s state-run apple-breeding program in the nineties, with its Pink Lady variety, and the Honeycrisp had been released as a managed variety in Europe in 2000. But no large-scale university breeding program had ever released a managed variety of apple in the U.S. As Jim Luby, the head of the Fruit Breeding Program at the university and Bedford’s boss, explained to me, “There was some discussion about how this would be perceived by the state’s growers.” After all, the new apple, like the twenty-six varieties that had come before it, had been created, in part, with public funds (though, with budget cuts, the tax-based share of the funding was declining). And, as a land-grant institution, the university had a long and distinguished record of passing its agricultural advances along to the state’s farmers. Nevertheless, in the interest of quality control, and to maximize the revenue stream from the apple, the university decided to manage the release. Also, in addition to patenting the apple tree, which was called Minneiska, the university would trademark the apple itself. Growers would be obliged to pay royalties on both the tree and its fruit.

The university asked for proposals to lead the consortium from some of the state’s growers. Pepin Heights Orchards won the job. Bedford and Courtier came up with a name for the apple, SweeTango, and Courtier called the consortium, with some hubris, Next Big Thing. Minnesota growers who did not wish to join were allowed to plant up to a thousand trees—subsequently increased to three thousand—but could sell the apples only at farmers’ markets, local grocery stores, and farm stands. Only Next Big Thing was entitled to sell the apples commercially—i.e., to wholesalers and grocers. “When you sell the apples at your farm stand, people know who grew them,” Luby explained. “But when you sell them to a grocery store you the grower are anonymous, as far as the consumer is concerned, and that’s where quality issues creep in. We wanted to avoid that.” Growers outside Minnesota weren’t allowed to grow SweeTango at all, unless they joined Next Big Thing.

But some people aren’t pleased at the degree of control…

Fred Wescott, an apple grower in Elgin, Minnesota, had also wanted to lead the SweeTango consortium. He didn’t really mind that he lost out to Dennis Courtier, he said. “What bothers me is the way the university set this up. Dennis Courtier is the big winner, and we are the losers, and it didn’t have to be that way.” By denying Minnesota growers the right to grow and market the SweeTango as they see fit, he went on, including selling it commercially, the university was threatening their livelihood; many of the state’s growers were unhappy with the SweeTango model, he added. “Let’s say this turns out to be another Honeycrisp, one of the biggest national varieties—which I don’t think it will, because it’s not an apple of that calibre—but if it did, and we weren’t able to grow it for commercial production, that would have a devastating impact on our business. Devastating.”

Another grower, Karl Townsend, noted that both Cornell and Washington State University were preparing to release new varieties of apples, which out-of-state growers would not be able to grow, while all in-state growers could. (In New York, growers must join an industry-wide coöperative, New York Apple Growers.) “Why couldn’t the university have come up with a hybrid model like that as opposed to the model of letting one grower, Pepin Heights, control the whole thing? It would have brought just as much revenue for the university.”

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