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.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 new varieties are grown each year, with Luby and his team tasting and spitting out 500 apples a day. Roughly 15 make the cut and are cloned into orchards that are observed for five more years. There's no guarantee any of them will become a sellable variety, though Honeycrisp and the school's SweeTango varieties both hit paydirt. The University of Minnesota has since brought in close to $10 million from the $1-per-tree royalties on Honeycrisp, and has a similar deal for SweeTango that gives it a 4.5% cut of sales.

If anybody knows what catches the public's and growers' attention, it's Luby. We sought him out again this year to see what key elements make great eating, baking and juicing apples. We also sent him some photos of those farmhouse apples to see if they were anything beyond a chance seedling or an exceptional crab apple.

"This looks very much like the Lodi apple that my grandmother had in her farmstead," Luby said. "We used to pick it in mid and early August."

According to the folks at orchard site Orange Pippin, the Lodi apple looks and tastes much like the unknown apple and is similarly good as a juice and puree. Far from a random seedling, however, the Lodi was developed with the help of geneticists from Cornell University at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva during the early 20th century. The station crossed Yellow Transparent and Montgomery apples and whoever planted those trees created a small windfall for the station and the university.

To give you a better idea of how apples such as the Lodi and Honeycrisp come to be, however, we had Luby offer some clarification:

What goes into making a sought-after apple?

Luby: It's got to be good to eat: Either good texture, good flavor or a combination of both. I think the other thing that's really critical is the ability to get to the consumer in good shape. It has to be an apple that can stay crisp for several weeks or months after harvest. That's really critical for continued staying power, but an apple also has to look good for initial purchases.

You're in the business of building the better apple, so what have you found that people respond to when it comes to the eating experience?

Luby: Crispness and juiciness kind of trump everything. There's a very small minority that prefer a softer, mushier apple.

For flavors, there's just a lot of variation on what people like. Some people like them more on the tart side, others like them more seemingly sweet. There's a lot of latitude there and it's more of an individual preference thing. If you go in, and I've done it many times, and give a talk to a group of 50, 100 or 200 people and have them raise their hands for the texture they like, crisp usually always wins out. When you get into things like tart vs. sweet, the audience gets a lot more split -- and we see that in our tasting panels, too.

There are some special flavors that we come across that have a more specialized audience. There are some apples that have a bit of a honey flavor or anise flavor that people can really detect.

It's like drinking wine. What's a good wine? Get a few of your friends in a room and they may each have their own favorite.

When you're breeding a new apple and are looking for that crispness and juiciness, what are some of the base varieties that help bring those traits to a new variety?

Luby: We now use Honeycrisp a lot in our breeding, as do many other breeders. You're going to see, in the next few years, a number of offspring of Honeycrisp coming out. SweeTango is the first one, but New York has one that's going to be marketed under the name Snapdragon and that has Honeycrisp as a parent. The Washington growers have one and I haven't heard what name it's going to be marketed under, but it goes by the experimental number WA-38. In the next five years or so, we'll start to see those in some quantity too.

There's another one that's coming out of the Midwest Apple Improvement Program called Evercrisp, which is a Honeycrisp-by-Fuji cross. So there's a whole group of Honeycrisp children coming that, in the next 10 years, will really change what kind of apples are available.

But even the Honeycrisp's origin story suggests it gets its traits from the Macoun and Honeygold varieties. Which of the two gave it that initial crispness?

Luby: Well, actually it's not the Macoun or the Honeygold. About a decade ago, after the initial description came out in 1991 and genetic markets became available, we did a little CSI work and published a paper that said neither was the parent of Honeycrisp. It appears, based on the markers, that another Minnesota variety called Keepsake which crosses a Northern Spy with an unnamed variety is one of the parents. It has a very nice texture, but a different, nutty flavor. The other parent we're not sure what it is, but think it may be descended from Golden Delicious.

With that in mind, even with the availability of genetic markers, are a lot of apple breeding combinations still a matter of chance?

Luby: Apples are like humans. If you have a sibling from the same parents, you're very definitely not alike. You may have some resemblances, both physical and perhaps personality -- which we could say is the way you look and the way you taste -- and apples are kind of the same way.

You could cross two parents with one another and grow out 100 seedlings from them and no two seedlings are going to be like one another, nor are they going to be like either one of the parents. You probably have some resemblances to your father and mother, but you probably aren't like them in appearance, personality or behavior.

Most humans don't have families anywhere near 100 kids, but if we did we'd have quite an assortment in that family.

Taking that human analogy a bit further, do an apple's traits and upbringing make it more suited to certain lines of work -- say, baking or juicing?

Luby: Especially with pie apples, the ability to maintain the shape of a slice is considered pretty important. Some apples are able to do that, but some melt away and are better for sauce.

When you call it a cooking apple, it all depends on what you're going to cook it into, whether it's a pie or baked apple.

Does the same crispness that makes a good eating apple make a good baking apple?

Luby: Not necessarily. I can think of some local varieties around here that are preferred for baking. The Honeycrisp is not really preferred by the pie makers, but we have a local apple here called a Haralson that is much preferred. It holds its shape better and has more acidities so that when you're adding something sweet -- sugar or brown sugar or honey -- to an apple pie, you want to balance that. Anything you're going to add sugar to you're going to want more acidity to balance it out.

You've noted that only about 10 million of the more than 246 million apples produced this year will be Honeycrisp. According to the USDA, its $2.58-per-pound price is down 40 cents a pound from 2012, but more than double that of a McIntosh and similar to that of a 3-pound bag of Gala apples. That's kind of a boutique apple, no?

Luby: I think the price reflects that it's still not that much of a common apple yet. People like it, obviously, so there's demand, and there's a lot more planting to come in five to 10 years.

So when you're breeding and producing apples, is it as much about finding that great-selling apple as it is about furthering the science behind apple production?

Luby: I think most of the apple breeding programs are reliant on income from the apples and apple varieties. The public investment in our breeding programs has gone down, so it usually comes down to investment of grower organizations and then income generated from varieties from the program.

There's certainly interest in furthering the science too. I know most of us at the Cornell, Washington State and Minnesota breeding programs have been involved in a project funded in part by the USDA to try to develop genetic markers that we can use to do more efficient selection so we can tell, even when a seedling is very young, if it's more likely to have crisp fruit several years form now or mushy fruit, if it's red or yellow, if it's sour or not.

To go back to the human analogy, it's similar to what people do. Many couples seek genetic screening information about the risks they might have in having children. The difference with apples is that we can just through the sour ones out. With humans, it's just a bit more complicated.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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