On Cornell’s sprawling 900-acre New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, New York, Susan K. Brown, School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture and Plant Breeding and Genetics, is developing better apples. What exactly makes a great apple? For examples, just take a bite of Brown’s recent creations: SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™.
SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™
SnapDragon™, patented by Brown in 2011 and debuted to consumers in fall 2013, is known for its crispness and spicy-sweet taste. RubyFrost™, patented in 2011 and debuted with SnapDragon™, is a high-vitamin C apple with excellent resistance to flesh browning.
“My breeding objective is to produce high-quality varieties and characteristic crispness,” says Brown. “People vary in tastes and flavors, but nobody wants a soft mushy apple. Both SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™ are very crisp and juicy, and hold up well in storage. The reaction from consumers has been great.”
Since their debut, both SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™ have grown in availability from Cornell Orchard to roadside stands to farmers’ markets to retail produce sections. In January 2014, RubyFrost™ hit the shelves at Hannaford and Wegmans’ stores in New York State. It did so well that a year later the apple is rolling out to hundreds of major retailer stores throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Wegmans’ also began stocking SnapDragon™ apples in November 2014, to great consumer reaction.
What Goes into Making High-Quality Apple Varieties?
These apples didn’t just come from Brown’s imagination—breeding superior apples involves many years of research and testing. Both the SnapDragon™ and the RubyFrost™ took 11 to 12 years from first making the crosses to commercialization, and most new apple varieties take 20 to 40 years.
The process involves making many crosses between different varieties of apples to test how the genetics of two “parent” apples will interact. The seeds are germinated and planted on their own roots in the orchards. After four years, they fruit for the first time. If a cross looks promising, Brown will do a larger cross and extensive testing.
When Brown tasted the first fruits of SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™, she knew that she wanted to fast track them for testing. The former is a cross between Honeycrisp, a popular variety created by University of Minnesota, and an advanced breeding selection, which is an unnamed seedling with desirable traits and qualities.
“We wanted to develop an apple with the quality of Honeycrisp without the many Honeycrisp problems,” says Brown. “Only 40 to 50 percent of Honeycrisp fruit can be marketed due to disorders, which makes it an economic challenge for growers. We chose a parent with slightly more flavor and aromatics to boost the quality of the fruit and sorted through offspring to select the best quality without the production issues.”
Brown’s goal in creating RubyFrost™ was to make an apple that is slow to brown, a characteristic important to companies selling pre-sliced apples as well as to everyday consumers. The researchers crossed Autumn Crisp, a Cornell variety, with Braeburn.
From there, Brown’s group made trees for further testing at NYSAES and partner grower orchards. “We do more tests than you might imagine,” says Brown. The researchers look for qualities such as long-term growth potential, along with physiological disorders in storage. (“One year the plant might be wonderful, but the next it might get a disease,” Brown says.)
A Partnership with the Growers
Once the apples were ready for growers, Cornell partnered with the New York Apple Growers (NYAG), an organization of 140 grower members in New York State. The organization represents around 60 percent of the state’s apple production. “What was important to me and Cornell and the growers was that every grower in the state was able to join and have the opportunity to grow these apples,” says Brown.
The partnership sped up the commercialization process and reduced the risk to growers. Guidelines for quality were set, and funds were put aside for promotion. The growers provided a critical mass, 900 acres dedicated to growing SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™.
“This was a really nice way to get some support for the program, and the growers felt it was special that only New York State had access to these two varieties,” says Brown. “This partnership benefits the university and the industry, and ultimately consumers by giving them two high-quality apples that are produced locally.”
Brown’s Apple Breeding Agenda
Brown continues to breed apples with specific traits at NYSAES. Her interests lie in developing apples with different flavor profiles, higher nutrient qualities, and disease resistance. She says that she is currently working on patents for five new apples, all of which she hopes to release to the market in coming years.
“Right now, there are established cider varieties, usually French and Spanish hybrids that are susceptible to disease,” says Brown. A large apple for hard cider would be a boon to Cornell’s apple breeding program and to industry.
In another area of apple research, Brown is testing some advanced breeding selection for use in hard cider. Given Upstate New York’s penchant for cider making, it’s a venture that could help cider become more local, and with better apples. “Right now, there are established cider varieties, usually French and Spanish hybrids that are susceptible to disease,” says Brown. A large apple for hard cider would be a boon to Cornell’s apple breeding program and to industry.
Brown’s interest in apples is unwavering. A longtime plant enthusiast, she says, “I’m blessed to work on a fruit that is good for you and that appeals to consumers.” And as a breeder, she loves that so much variation occurs in apples. Researchers like her can improve not only on the taste and texture of the fruit but ultimately on how the fruit is grown—for example, a gene for plant form allows trees to grow apples on a single trunk similar to how Brussels sprouts grow.
“Our goal is to make sure that we’re offering consumers something different, but also something better than what’s out there,” says Brown. “That’s a challenge because Cornell has a lot of great varieties. Cornell’s Cortland apple is 100 years old. We have varieties that stand the test of time, and we’re creating new varieties that we hope will also have a similar, or better, track record.”