Nov 2, 2020
Kevin Maloney: Developing seriously good apples at Cornell AgriTech

Kevin Maloney is a research specialist who works in the apple breeding program at Cornell AgriTech, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Maloney has worked on the Geneva campus for 35 years, where he has been collaborating with Susan Brown, Herman M. Cohn Professor of Agriculture and Life Science, on the release of popular apple varieties like SnapDragon and RubyFrost. Here, he talks about his experience working for the oldest apple breeding program in the U.S.

How did you become interested in apple breeding?

Previous work experience in the grape and small fruit breeding programs on the Geneva campus peaked my interest, and this lead me to pursue a position in the apple breeding program with Susan Brown. New York is a leading apple producing state, and the industry has tremendous support for apple research. Cornell’s apple breeding program also has a strong tradition of research excellence, and I was fortunate to join this prestigious program.

What would most people not expect about working in an apple breeding program?

Apple breeding is a long process.  Many people are unaware that apples are extremely juvenile as seedlings and do not bear fruit for several years. As a result, it takes many years to make improvements.

Apple breeding is also challenging because everyone prefers different flavors and textures. There are many good apple variety offerings at stores and farm stands, which raises the bar and makes it more difficult for new cultivars to reach the broader market.

However, trying new and unreleased apples is definitely a perk of my job. Many people would be surprised to know that not all apples are pleasant to eat though, especially when derived from a cross with a scab-resistant apple, for example.

If you could create the most perfect apple, what would it look and taste like?

My ideal apple would be firm, crisp and juicy, with equal amounts of sugar and acid. It would also be pest-resistant, uniform in shape and appearance, and easy to grow. I consider SnapDragon to be my perfect apple right now.

Describe your work in helping develop successful apple varieties.

I manage the apple breeding orchards, greenhouse and nursery at Cornell AgriTech.  Susan and I make new genetic crosses every year, aimed at improving fruit quality, disease resistance and ornamental characteristics. There is a constant cycle of new offspring from the crosses we make that need testing and evaluation. We have off campus trials in all apple producing regions across New York state.

I benefit from interaction with growers, industry representatives, extension staff, faculty, students, summer scholars and crop consultants. In addition, we have a great farm research unit in Geneva that supports our research.

What makes your partnership with Susan Brown unique, and how does it play into the apples that are released?

We both worked in other Cornell fruit breeding programs prior to our positions in the apple breeding program, which gave us different perspectives.

Susan has afforded me a number of great opportunities. With her encouragement, I successfully completed my master’s degree through Cornell’s employee degree program, and I also graduated from the LEAD New York program. Our partnership is successful because we complement each other and genuinely enjoy the challenge of developing new apple varieties.

What do you love most about working in the apple breeding program?

I enjoy having the opportunity to eat hundreds of different apples each year. I am lucky to have worked for most of my career at Cornell AgriTech, which has such a rich breeding history, and to have worked with so many great people. I’m driven by the challenge of creating apples that consumers will crave and that will benefit the industry. We want to introduce more varieties that will benefit wholesale and retail producers, U-pick farms and the hard cider industry in New York State, as well as varieties that will make the consumer experience more enjoyable.

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