Dreaming Up “The Apple of Big Dreams”
Researchers work outside of the spotlight to help growers succeed.
THE CLIMATE AND SOIL CONDITIONS of Washington state create a wonderful puzzle, and when farmers are able to solve the puzzle, they’re rewarded with harvests that rival any other growing region in the world. Tree fruits, in particular, seem to thrive in the state, with orchards of apples, cherries, pears, and nectarines dotting the landscape in every corner.
But the success of tree fruit growers in the state is no accident. Researchers from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission help to put together puzzle pieces, making it possible for orchardists to get the best from their land. They take the latest scientific breakthroughs and work with farmers to create new best practices that will result in better fruit, higher yields, and a more prosperous industry.
"We are kind of this in-between between scientists, the grower community, and businesses," said Ines Hanrahan, the executive director of the commission. "It’s all with the goal of helping to create solutions for growers so they can maintain profitable businesses."
And they have certainly helped Washington growers, who feed consumer demand in not only the United States, but also in export markets throughout the world. For apples, pears, and cherries alone, the total value of production in Washington is more than $2.5 billion .
One of their most recognizable, successful initiatives has been the Cosmic Crisp apple variety. Work done by the Tree Fruit Research Commission helped get this apple into the hands of consumers.
"We actually decided to start an apple-breeding program in the mid-90s because the growers wanted to have an apple that was better adapted for our growing climate," said Hanrahan. "The Tree Fruit Research Commission funded this breeding program for 20 years, and the apple was released in 2019 and is such a success. Basically, we provided 20 years of startup funding, and now, they're on their own, and everybody profits from it."
The apple, nicknamed "the Apple of Big Dreams," has been a huge success, cracking the top 10 apples in the United States (ranked by sales value and volume) less than five years after being commercially introduced. Positive reviews of the apple note that it has an extremely long storage life, and it keeps its sweet flavor for up to a year in the refrigerator.
The commission does much more than just inventing new varieties of apple. Some of the research that they do includes developing a spray-free mating disruption technique that limits the effect of the invasive codling moth in organic apples, implementing new thinning methods to improve the quality of the fruit, and research with MCP (1-methylcyclopropene), an ethylene-blocking agent that may extend the storage life of stored fruits. Hanrahan thinks the commission would be a great landing place for any aspiring young scientists.
"This is a place where you can send your kids where they will have a good future," she said. "Sign them up for ag degrees, sign them up for engineering degrees and roboticists. It's a great way to bring together all different sciences."