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What Goes Into That Apple You're Eating

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- In front of the barn on this writer's Oregon farm, two apple trees have been producing their pale green fruit since mid-August, only to let it develop a slight blush and fade to yellow. The farm's previous owner had no idea where the trees came from, but their resulting, unidentified apples are crisp and sweet, press into an excellent cider and melt into a near-puree when baked. They're serviceable, but would anyone ever buy them?

As the crisp air returns and the windfall apples begin to drop, the very term "apple picking" changes from a description of seasonal recreation to the hard core of U.S. agriculture's business.

Whether in the orchards or in the produce section, consumers are selecting their apples from myriad varieties, each with its own point of origin and each benefiting different producers and creators. Beyond the orchards and farms, there are government and university agriculture programs relying on income from those differing apple varieties to fund their future endeavors.

The stakes are a bit higher this year, as the Department of Agriculture has forecast an apple crop of 246.5 million bushels for 2013. That's much larger that the frost-decimated 217.5 million-bushel crop from last year that forced a 12% price increase from 2011. With some of the pricing pressure off, the ground is slightly more level for the various apple cultivars.

That's helping Americans branch out a bit with their apple choices. Back in 1996, 60% of the apples sold in the U.S. were either Golden Delicious or Red Delicious. Neither are overly sweet or tart, neither is especially crisp and neither inspires nearly as much enthusiasm today. The sales of those apples have dwindled to roughly a third of all sales as consumers reap the benefits of advances in apple breeding.

One of the apples that has risen to prominence as a result is the Honeycrisp, developed by the fruit breeding program at the University of Minnesota. James Luby, who is the program's director and has been pairing varieties there since 1982, spoke with us at length about the apple breeding process four years ago. He explained that 15- to 20-year development process generally keeps companies such as Monsanto (MON) and Del Monte (DEL) out of the apple industry, as does the sheer amount of chance involved in developing an apple.

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