Where Do All Those New Supermarket Apples Come From?

Those Honeycrisps you love are probably way older than you think.

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Shelf with fruits on a farm market

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If you’ve made your way to the supermarket this fall, you’ve certainly seen all the apples! You've probably seen Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji and Gala varieties for many years, but nowadays, there are plenty of newer options making it to market. More and more varieties you’ve never seen before have landed on store shelves. Here's a look at how a new apple makes it from the orchard to your supermarket.

How Is a New Apple Created?

Jim Bair President and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association explains that new varieties are created by cross-breeding, which is when a plant breeder crosses two plants to become parents and ultimately “create” a new variety. “The first fruit from a cross made by an apple breeder is not available until at least three years after the cross was made. After several years of additional testing to be sure that the new variety has the traits necessary for consumer acceptance and suitable traits for production, typically the research institution applies for a patent that lasts for 20 years and requires that anyone growing the apple must obtain a license from the holder of the patent,” he says. The developing, testing and getting the new variety can easily take 15 to 20 years from the time it is cross-bred until it is available to the public.

There are also thousands of varieties of apples that have been created, you just haven’t heard of them. “For an apple variety to be produced in quantity, growers need to convince a commercial nursery to create the apple trees by grafting the top (scion) on an apple rootstock chosen to result in the right size tree,” explains Bair. Although thousands of apple varieties exist, “relatively few varieties reach production because trees must be grafted and produced by a commercial nursery before they are available for growers to plant in their orchard.”

How Do Farmers Grow New Varieties?

Developers of new varieties, including universities or private breeding programs, reach out to growers. Growers who wish to produce the new variety will seek a license to grow from the holder of the patent and a commercial nursery from which they can purchase the apple trees. “Growers then will spend $40,000 and upward per acre to establish the orchard,” says Bair.

And growing lesser known varieties doesn’t come without risk and foresight. It can take five years before an orchard gets to a full production of a new apple, not to mention the $30,000 to $50,000 per acre it costs to plant the trees. Other factors that come into play are the planting location and the types of varieties that will grow best there. For example, Granny Smith and organic apples don’t grow well on the east coast. “It is a very important conversation to have with retailers as to what they are looking for in new apples and be able to forecast consumer preferences in 5 to 10 years,” explains Alisha Albinder-Camac, Director of Operations at Hudson River Fruit (which her family owns).

Albinder-Camac gave me a tour of the company’s apple orchards and explained why she decided to grow newer varieties of apples called SnapDragon and Ruby Frost which are exclusive to New York State. “When we found out that Cornell University were developing new apple varieties we were really excited to get involved with Snapdragon and RubyFrost,” says Albinder-Camac. Cornell University is known worldwide for it pomology department and they have successfully developed 65 different varieties of apples, with many more in the works. “It was really important to us to support our state's program and we really like the idea of the growers in the state having exclusive growing rights to these two new varieties.”

How Do New Apples Make It to Your Supermarket?

Let’s look at the two varieties of New York apples, SnapDragon and Ruby Frost. SnapDragon features a sweet flavor, with a spicy undertone and hint of vanilla. Its signature quality is its monster crunch. The Ruby Frost is a classic twist on the classic Northeast apple with a little sweet, a little tart, and perfectly crisp and is used for seasonal baking. Dennis Payne, Sr. Category Manager Produce at The Fresh Market says, “We generally carry more than three times the varieties [of produce] of traditional grocery stores, and we focus on specialty varieties, quality specifications (larger size, higher grades), and long term grower relationships.” The Fresh Market partners with Hudson River Fruit in New York and carries 13 varieties of their apples. “We’ll have traditional varieties like McIntosh and Gala, but we’ll also have unique and harder to find varieties like Ruby Frost and SnapDragon, so our guests can be inspired to try something new.”

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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