Oct 2, 2014
EverCrisp on its way

It was early November 2008, shortly after apple harvest ended, when David Doud first realized he might have a special apple on his hands.

The owner of David Doud’s Countyline Orchard near Wabash, Indiana, was picking crab apples for a cider maker when he decided to make one more pass through a special block of apple trees. He found a few apples hanging on the branches. When he bit into them, he realized how outstanding they were: crisp and sweet, just what the modern consumer wants.

Doud thought: “This is better than anything I have to sell today.”

He’s had enough experience with consumers to know that, even though they might say flavor is the most important characteristic they look for when purchasing apples, what they’re actually looking for is texture. An apple with good flavor but soft flesh “wipes out 98 percent” of consumers, he said.

“They expect a texture. After that, they want flavor.”

Doud sent half a dozen specimens of the unnamed varieties to fellow members of the Midwest Apple Improvement Association (MAIA), a loose organization of breeders and growers. The varieties, Honeycrisp/Fuji crosses, came from a block of MAIA test trees. All were crisp and sweet, but one in particular stood out for its flavor, appearance and keeping abilities. That apple, now called EverCrisp, became the private breeding group’s first release, launched in late 2012.

Old orchard

Doud, 60, has a long history growing and selling apples. His farm has been in the family since the 1850s. His father ran a nursery there. His brother, Steven Doud, was collecting obscure apple varieties back in the ’50 and ’60s, “before it was cool.” He and his wife, Valerie, have lived on the farm for 37 years. They have three grown children.

Doud grows about 20 acres of fruit, mostly apples with some peaches, pears and strawberries. As a grower, he describes himself as the “smallest of the small” and not very progressive. The spindle-type apple trees used in modern, high-density orchards are too small for his location. The deer demolish them.

“We’re too wild here,” he said. “I need a bigger tree.”

He sells most of his fruit “right across the table” from his customers. Most customers are local, but some will make an “annual pilgrimage” from as far away as southern Indiana or Chicago. He attends several farmers’ markets each week.

At the height of apple season, he’ll have more than 20 varieties for sale. Honeycrisp is popular, of course, but like many growers Doud finds it a difficult apple.

“Honeycrisp reset the bar,” he said, but “twice the price and half the packout is not making you any more money. If Honeycrisp didn’t have any production problems, we wouldn’t be searching so hard for something else.”

Doud has experienced some setbacks in the last couple of years. After losing all his fruit to freezes in 2012, the 2013 crop was looking “wonderful,” but then his farm was hit with the worst fire blight epidemic he’s ever seen.

“It was terrible.”

He also was disturbed by the lack of native pollinators in 2013. Surrounded by a hundred acres of woods and wild lands, native pollinators had always been in plentiful supply for his orchard. But most of them never showed up that year. It was a little better in 2014, but not by much.

“It’s nothing like I’ve experienced all my life,” he said. “I don’t know whether they will come back or not.”

Eureka

It was 2001 when Doud received 320 Honeycrisp/Fuji crosses from MAIA. Those crosses have been “exceptional,” he said, producing a high percentage of crisp, sweet, “modern-type” varieties. Honeycrisp hasn’t always been a good parent in the past, but this particular combination has been “tremendous.”

When the MAIA block began to fruit in 2007, Doud flagged a few of the more promising trees. The original EverCrisp tree – he uses the horticultural term “ortet” – was not flagged. It wasn’t until the next year that he and other members of MAIA started to discover how special it was. Once they did, MAIA sent wood from the ortet to Wafler Nursery in New York state, which started propagating test trees.

Doud kept a close watch on the Honeycrisp/Fuji seedling trees for the next few years, and noticed that the EverCrisp ortet consistently cropped about four bushels of apples per season (except in 2012, when freezes wiped out every apple he had) with no thinning required. Now 15 years old, the tree is still relatively small and has a nice shape, with a spreading growth habit and 90-degree crotch angles. He pruned it once to clean it out a little bit, but other than that he’s done “nothing major.”

In Doud’s region, north-central Indiana, EverCrisp is ready to pick after Oct. 10. He expects it to be a single-pick apple; it will hang and wait for harvest as long as the grower wants, increasing in sugar and quality through early November. The variety has not exhibited cracking, bitter pit, pre-harvest drop or shriveling in storage. It has exhibited watercore, but losses to watercore breakdown have so far been negligible; fruits run a consistent 3 to 3.25 inches in diameter.

Doud has received “maybe 150” EverCrisp trees from Wafler Nursery on B.9, G.41 and G.935 rootstocks. He has roughly the same number on M.7. He said the G.935 trees are “very impressive.”

Doud has yet to sell any EverCrisp. The small quantities he’s grown so far have been used for sampling and promotions. He won’t sell any this year, either.

“Next year, with a little bit of luck, we’ll have a few bushels for sale.”

Developing apples

There are half a dozen varieties still in the breeding pipeline that Doud would love to talk about, but MAIA is being cautious about releasing information. He did say that the group is using EverCrisp as a parent, crossing it with other varieties.

Apple growers Mitch Lynd and Ed Fackler founded MAIA in 1998. Concerned about proprietary apples, they decided it was best for Midwest growers to breed their own varieties instead of scrambling to get them from somebody else. Most of MAIA’s growers and nurserymen are in Ohio, but there are members in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Michigan. The members evaluate seedling results more or less on their own. If one of them discovers a superior apple, such as EverCrisp, all members have access to it, Lynd said.

EverCrisp apples aren’t selling in the marketplace yet, but plantings are spreading. Approximately 25,000 trees were planted in 20 locations in six states this year. Close to 250,000 trees have been sold for 2015 and sales are nearing 350,000 for 2016. Wafler Nursery and Hilltop Nursery are currently selling EverCrisp trees; several other nurseries have licenses to sell them but aren’t doing so yet. Budwood is tight for 2016, but should be more readily available for 2017. Rootstocks currently in use are G.935, G.41 and B.9, according to Bill Dodd, MAIA’s executive director.

White House Fruit Farm, a member of MAIA, has about an acre of EverCrisp trees on B.9, G.41 and G.935. The farm, based in Canfield in eastern Ohio, planted the trees in 2013 and 2014. With virtually no experience with the variety, they’re still figuring out factors like optimal rootstock and correct tree and row spacing, said David Hull Jr., a member of the family that runs the business.

“It’s a learning experience for everybody,” he said. “The taste is very, very good, but what sets it apart from other sweet apples is its texture. It seems to be able to keep very well outside of refrigeration, which excites growers and retailers.

“It may turn out to be a wonderful apple, but you never know with any apple,” Hull said.

Grappling with the uncertainty – and length of time – involved in developing a new variety like EverCrisp requires an extraordinary amount of patience and faith. But Doud is enjoying every minute.

“I’ve never had more fun with fruit,” he said.

The enjoyment is not restricted to Doud. MAIA is still making crosses and distributing seedlings to orchards, and membership is open.

“Others can still get in on the fun of developing the next generation of apple improvement,” Doud said.

Matt Milkovich




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