No matter where you stand on the issues this election year, one thing rises out of the rhetoric — even in our small Northwest towns, we are undeniably living in a global society. If you’re not quite sure about that, consider the heart of Washington’s apple industry, where great upheaval and change have occurred over the past seven years.

“Washington’s signature Red Delicious not only embodied the ideal apple, but also the corner the industry backed itself into,” said WSU’s John Fellman, professor, department of horticulture and landscape architecture.

That corner grew into a dilemma when people tired of the taste of the Red Delicious and turned to other apple varieties and exotic fruits. Added to that was the increasing availability of year-round apple imports from countries like Chile, France, New Zealand and South Africa.

China is now the largest apple producing country in the world — producing about one third of the world total and exporting large amounts of low-priced apple juice concentrate. Suddenly, longtime family orchards in Wenatchee and Yakima were no longer competitive in the business world — the global business world.

Atmosphere and competition

To better understand how the apple industry came to this crossroads, it helps to step back a few years. In the early 1960s, WSU began pioneering studies in controlled atmospheric storage of apples.

“Between research at the USDA station in Wenatchee and the efforts of Archie Van Doren, professor of horticulture and the Wenatchee Research Station superintendent for WSU, the storage industry was born,” said Fellman.

Controlled atmosphere or CA refers to a gas-tight, refrigerated room that has most of the oxygen removed to slow down the rate of deterioration of the fruit. Apples can currently be stored for a maximum of six months before flavor and quality start to deteriorate.

“By the 1980s, CA technology allowed the Washington apple industry to take off and overproduce in a way that was never possible before,” said Fellman. “Up until the early 80s, most of the apple crop would be sold by late January,” added Desmond O’Rourke, retired director of the WSU Impact Center and founder and CEO of Belrose, Inc., world apple market analysts. “CA worked great for a while, when apples were in short supply during part of the year,” he said. “Growers could ask a high enough price to cover the cost of storage.

“But now we have apples coming in from the southern hemisphere in March and April. Those apples are only one month old versus the six-month-old CA apples. Of course consumers want the freshest produce, so it’s tough to get a good price on CA apples now, which has cut into the storage costs and decreased profitability,” said O’Rourke.

On his website, http://www.e-belrose.com, O’Rourke reports that world apple production is 2.5 times what it was in 1960, rising almost 40 percent in the last decade. In recent years, global apple production has been around 58 million metric tons — or enough to provide each person in the world with nearly 20 pounds of apples.

This overproduction led to depressed U.S. apple market returns in 1998-2001 and precipitated widespread reductions in orchard acreage. As a result, the 2003-2004 U.S. apple crop is estimated at 20 percent below the 1998 peak.

Washington, accounting for about two-thirds of all U.S. fresh apple supplies, especially was hit hard. About 20 percent of Washington orchards were taken out of production due to low prices. Add to that the dissolution of the Washington Apple Commission in 2003, and apple growers now are going it alone without the support of their primary promoter.

A license to grow

It was during this time that the apple producing paradigm began to shift.

“The common apple varieties had no restrictions on them,” said Bruce Barritt, horticulturist at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee. The old varieties, like Red and Golden Delicious, were free to anyone and any amount of acreage could be planted.

At that time, most of the orchards were run as family businesses that didn’t spend much time on concepts like marketing strategies and variety management. Today everything has changed — and they have been forced to become more sophisticated in order to survive.

According to O’Rourke, Washington already had begun to counter the decline by introducing successful new varieties such as Gala and Fuji around 1985. But the first harbinger of major change came when New Zealand decided to patent its apple varieties and restrict who could grow and market them. In 1997, the Pacific Rose® variety was released from New Zealand and licensed to growers in Washington State, who pay royalties for the privilege. A few years later, Jazz® was released.

“Today there are a number of public and private partnerships in the global business of breeding apples,” said Barritt. “Owners of these new varieties realize they control valuable intellectual property that is protected with plant patents, plant breeder’s rights and trademarks.”

Enter the world of “club varieties” — where new apple varieties are carefully managed by limiting production, assuring high quality and developing a shrewd marketing strategy.

“For example, Pacific Rose® and Jazz® are owned by the New Zealand research group, HortResearch, but are licensed to and managed by ENZA (the export brand for the New Zealand Apple & Pear Marketing Board). The University of Minnesota is the owner of Honeycrisp™, which is licensed in Europe to the French organization Pomanjou, where it is known as Honeycrunch,” said Barritt.

Also, a new organization has been formed in Italy to acquire apple varieties from around the world. SK Sudtirol, the Variety Innovation Consortium of South Tyrol, will evaluate the varieties and make industry decisions about what will or will not be grown.

Global restrictions

For growers, the cost for joining this global society of club varieties is twofold: the price for tree, acreage and production royalties; and a relative loss of freedom. However, Barritt believes being interdependent, as part of an alliance or partnership, will ultimately bring future success. Growers will essentially become part of a club in order to acquire new varieties — and these varieties will require a disciplined team of growers, handlers and marketers in order to be managed successfully.

“Yet not everyone will be able to acquire the new varieties,” said Barritt. “For example, if British Columbia decided it wanted to grow Pink Lady®, the owner or licensee might refuse, saying the growing season is too short there and quality would be poor. They also may decline if you do not have a viable marketing plan or if you are a competitor of the owner or licensee.”

5,000 candidates cut to 50

Though it takes time, the Washington apple breeding program at Wenatchee is well on its way to producing some promising unique varieties. “Consumer demand drives the breeding program,” said Barritt. “Today’s products must satisfy consumer desires for firm, crisp and flavorful apples as well as be attractive and store well.”

To meet this end, a wide range of parent varieties are crossed and the seed collected. “With current funding, about 5,000 hybrid seedlings are planted in the WSU evaluation orchard each year,” said Barritt. “Of those, only about one half of one percent of the most promising, those that eat well, are selected to go on to the next phase of evaluation.”

In any one year, more than 10,000 seedling trees are fruiting and must be taste tested. From August through October, testers walk the long rows of seedlings to observe and sample the fruit. Of these seedlings, only a few make the grade to go on for further trials to determine such things as sugar/acid balance, texture and aromatic flavor.

In the end, only about 50 of 5,000 specimens are considered promising enough to be propagated for a second test. The entire process of developing a new apple variety may take 15 or more years.

“Because of the patenting process, I am not allowed to give out any information on possible new WSU varieties,” explained Barritt. “But I can say that most of our new test varieties are still in development, on the way to commercialization. Last spring, we planted our first group of second test seedlings, which will begin producing apples next year,” he said.

As for the future of Washington’s apple industry, Barritt, Fellman and O’Rourke agree that the key to successful competition no longer lies in the realm of Red and Golden Delicious but in the industry’s ability to produce new high quality club varieties.

“We’re losing some of our global markets,” said Barritt, “but with new apples that other countries can’t have, we’ll be back in the driver’s seat. There is only one market for apples now — the world.”

And who knows, maybe someday we’ll see a new Cougar Red or Cougar Crimson reaffirming Washington’s place in that market.

Apple tidbits

*Apples originated in west central Asia (Iran, Armenia, Kazakhstan) and have been recorded in history since about 8,000 B.C.
*By 1826, apples had made their way to Vancouver, Wash., via the Hudson Bay Company. A few years later, plantings were tried in the San Juan Islands, Walla Walla and Fort Spokane; but the industry really took off when irrigation was developed in the late 1800s.
*Central Washington is one of the best locations in the world to grow apples because it offers dry summers, wet winters, high latitudes, good light, long hot days and cool nights.
*Washington is the largest apple producing state.
*The top four commercial varieties grown in Washington are Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala and Fuji.
*All Washington apples are picked by hand — approximately 10-12 billion every fall.
*Per capita consumption of fresh apples in the U.S averaged about 19 pounds per person per year for much of the 1990s, but that has fallen sharply in the last three seasons.
*The U.S. exports about 25 percent of its fresh apple supplies and imports about 7 percent, mostly from Chile and New Zealand to meet off-season needs.
*The best way to store apples at home is to refrigerate them at as cold a temperature possible without freezing. Apples will ripen and soften 10 times faster at room temperature and nearly five times faster at 40 degrees than at 32 degrees F.
*And an apple a day may actually help keep the doctor away. Researchers have found that the combination of phytochemicals in apples (especially the skin) provides antioxidant and anticancer benefits, as well as reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and asthma.

Courtesy of Professor John Fellman, Belrose, Inc. and the WSU Tukey Orchard.