KENNEWICK — A new apple under development at Washington State University could compete for the hearts and palates of fruit lovers in a few years.
It’s burgundy red and juicy, and compares favorably with the popular Honeycrisp variety, with the same kind of crispy crunch.
It doesn’t have a name yet. Researchers simply call it “WA 38.” But in taste tests conducted by the university, some consumers prefer it to a Honeycrisp apple.
WA 38 has a nice sugar and acid balance, researchers say. It’s very sweet, but with a “good kind of punch of tartness,” and gets its texture from Honeycrisp.
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“It’s a really good eating apple, very crisp and juicy,” said Kate Evans, a pome fruit breeder at the university.
Mid-Columbia farmers should love it too, because it’s specially bred for Eastern Washington’s growing conditions.
WSU is getting ready to distribute the first trees to farmers, and consumers should see some fruit available by 2019 and 2020, Evans said.
Researchers expect to have a name with more pizazz than WA 38 before the apple hits supermarket shelves. But, like breeding good apples, they say coming up with a worthy name takes time.
The university crossbred the new apple in 1997. Researchers have been working ever since to select and test it in Eastern Washington’s commercial growing areas and make sure it is a match for what consumers want, Evans said.
Its appearance comes from Enterprise, an apple bred in Illinois to be resistant to diseases, Evans said.
“(WA 38) just stands out in terms of its eating quality and our experience in growing it in different areas in the state,” Evans said. “It performs really well.”
Jim McFerson, Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission manager, compared the apple’s pending release to the birth of a first child.
A first for WSU
It will be the first apple from WSU’s apple-breeding program that he expects to see commercialized. And that justifies the investment growers have made in the program over the past 15 years, he said.
“We feel like we’ve got to compete what is the best in the marketplace,” McFerson said. “Honeycrisp is that apple right now.”
The WA 38 tree is easier to grow than the Honeycrisp, seems to thrive with Eastern Washington’s long days, gets very little sunburn and needs less spraying, he said.
In comparison, Honeycrisp trees are susceptible to many disease and nutrient disorders, as well as sunburns, McFerson said.
Washington farmers are lucky to get 50 percent of Honeycrisp apples to the packing shed and the consumer, he said. They have become better at growing it, but the tree was developed for Minnesota conditions, and even growing there it still has deficiencies, he said.
The WA 38 apple also stores well, which is important since Washington apple growers aim to provide fruit for all 12 months of the year, Evans said. They’ve stored the apples for about 10 months as part of their tests.
The apple maintains a good level of firmness, remaining firm even if it was cut the day before, she said. It’s also very slow to brown.
“It retains that great textural quality for as long as we’ve tested it,” she said.
That means consumers should be able to buy the apple at any point within the year and get a very similar taste, Evans said. That’s an advantage, since Honeycrisp apples can be less flavorsome during particular times of the year.
Storage ability is increasingly crucial for the apple industry with exports expected to become more critical, McFerson said.
Currently, about 40 percent of Washington apples are sold overseas, but the size of the state’s apple crop has continued to grow.
Apples are Washington’s top crop, worth $2.3 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. State farmers harvested a record crop of 129 million, 40-pound boxes that year.
WSU is working with nurseries that are affiliated with the Northwest Nursery Improvement Institute to build up enough stock of the new trees. All of the propagation material will be from virus- and pest-free material from Prosser’s Clean Plant Center Northwest, Evans said.
The first trees
Growers interested in the first WA 38 trees need to apply to WSU between Tuesday and May 31.
The university will notify growers of the results of a random drawing by June 30. It’s the first time WSU has used this method for an apple-variety release.
WSU hopes to have about 30,000 trees available to growers in 2016 and 300,000 by 2017, officials say. While that sounds like a lot, at times some growers may order 100,000 trees of a certain variety.
It’s important to have a fair distribution, Evans said. Some funding for WSU’s apple-breeding program comes from the research commission, and ultimately, the growers.
“We want everybody to have opportunity if they are interested in those first few trees,” she said.
The drawing will cover the first two years and will be divided into small and large growers. There will be about 12 lots of 3,000 to 5,000 trees each for smaller growers and about 12 lots of about 20,000 trees each for larger growers.
Growers still will have to buy the trees, Evans said.
The trees will be available only to Washington residents who have enough land to support the trees they are asking for, according to WSU officials.
State growers who are not chosen in the drawing should be able to buy trees in 2018 and 2019.