Apr 18, 2023
New apples address climate, labor shortfalls

Through careful crossbreeding and selection, University of Maryland (UMD) researchers have developed what they consider to be ideal apple varieties for American growers trying to adapt to a changing world.

The new apples, a yellow and a red one, are heat- and blight-tolerant, low-maintenance, easy to harvest and delicious tasting, according to a news release. Both have been approved for patents and are awaiting the final grant from the U.S. Patent Office.

UMD professor Chris Walsh developed new apple varieties that have improved agronomic and taste characteristics and may require minimal pruning. Photo: Chris Walsh

“The apples address a growing suite of problems the apple industry has been grappling with,” Maryland officials said in the release. “The fruit has always been labor-intensive to bring to market, with trees that need to be trained, pru ned, and harvested by hand. In the past decade, all U.S. farmers have felt the squeeze of labor shortages, and the apple industry has been among the hardest hit.”

According to USApple, the nonprofit apple industry association, labor shortages caused an average 3% drop in U.S. crop production employment annually from 2016 to 2021, but apple orchard employment plummeted by 22% a year. Meanwhile, the wages farmers must pay have risen at the same time the price of fresh apples has fallen.

Compounding these stressors on apple growers, the climate is changing rapidly. Heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest in recent years strained the country’s largest apple producing areas. The South is growing hotter, and northern and eastern regions of the country are seeing shorter and warmer cool seasons, all of which spell uncertainty for orchard fruits tuned to cooler conditions.

UMD’s new apple trees could help farmers sidestep these obstacles.

The University of Maryland has released new yellow and red apple varieties. Photo: Kathleen Hunt

“These trees require a lot less hand labor compared to apples that are available to growers now,“ Chris Walsh, UMD professor emeritus in the Department of Plant Science & Landscape Architecture, said in the release. Walsh developed the new apples with his colleagues Julia Harshman and Kathleen Hunt. “We can’t say they’re non-pruning, but the pruning a farmer would do is minimal on these trees.”

The new Maryland varieties grow into much shorter trees, which makes harvesting easier. They also appear tolerant to fire blight, a destructive bacterial disease common to apples.

Another important feature of the apples is heat tolerance, one of the earliest characteristics Walsh and his team bred into apples. It was a feature they introduced with the Antietam Blush apple in 2017. Specifically designed to grow in Maryland’s warm, humid climate, the Antietam Blush was the first University of Maryland apple released.

The variety was the product of the Tree Architecture Program that Walsh launched more than 30 years ago with the planting of some 5,000 apple seedling trees from eight commercial varieties at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center in Keedysville, Maryland.

The release of a yellow apple called MD-TAP1 (which stands for Maryland Tree Architecture Program), and a red apple called MD-TAP2, stand to extend the program’s success even farther, because these apples feature a full suite of characteristics that make life easier for growers across the country.

PHOTO ABOVE: The University of Maryland has released apple varieties they tout as being ideal for American growers trying to adapt to a changing world. Photo: Kathleen Hunt


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