The Business of Breeding B.C. Apples

B.C.’s apple industry is in ?crisis. Are new apple breeds ?the solution? A team of? scientists is scrambling ?to invent the perfect apple. The paring knives cut into the flesh swiftly. Chrrrack. Crunch crunch crunch. The hallway of the open work area on the second floor of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre (PARC) in Summerland fills with the sound of chewing as the tasters contemplate what has just met their taste buds. ?

B.C. apples | BCBusiness
Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative packing house, Oliver, B.C.

B.C.’s apple industry is in 
crisis. Are new apple breeds 
the solution? A team of
 scientists is scrambling 
to invent the perfect apple.

The paring knives cut into the flesh swiftly. Chrrrack. Crunch crunch crunch. The hallway of the open work area on the second floor of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre (PARC) in Summerland fills with the sound of chewing as the tasters contemplate what has just met their taste buds. 

“Pass or fail?” asks Cheryl Hampson, apple-breeding research scientist. Apple 8S 54 60 sits in a green plastic crate awaiting sentence. “I say unless it’s got bigger flavour, with that appearance it’s not going anywhere,” comments research technician Darrell-Lee McKenzie. She drags the crate of brown-hued apples to join the compost pile. I ask Hampson, who has dedicated 16 years of her career to breeding the perfect apple, what makes for a winner. “That’s entirely in the tongue of the beholder,” the petite middle-aged scientist answers before breaking into a trill of laughter. 

The art of apple tasting

It’s early winter here in Summerland and a biting wind makes Lake Okanagan look more like Loch Ness. The only relic of the warm summer sun that bathes these slopes is the fruit before us. Armed with knife and spittoon, the pre-tasting panel is mercilessly thinning the pack. Of the 21 crates of apple varieties before us, only six will go on to blind taste tests that evaluate their skin toughness, crispiness, juiciness, sweetness, sourness and flavour intensity.

Image: Adam Blasberg
Apples are sliced, cored and judged for taste and

To make it, a new apple has to be the best apple you’ve ever eaten. Literally. “Because we are trying to beat what’s out there, to get a new apple on the market it has to be pretty darn good,” says McKenzie. When apple researchers reel off potential apple flaws, it’s like listening to your girlfriend damn all her online dating prospects. They’re too fat. Their colouring is off. They have too many freckles. They have a calcium deficiency that leaves black splotches on their skin. And you know all bets are off when they leave a bad aftertaste in your mouth. To be fair, these horticulturalists taste apples for two to four hours a day throughout the winter months. (One retired PARC employee boasts that he has tasted over a million apples in his life.) So it’s not just that their palates are jaded. Their tooth enamel is starting to erode and their stomach acid is spiking. 

Outside the walls of PARC, 
B.C.’s apple industry is in deep crisis as its growers continue to bleed money. In the past three years, apple growers on average have failed to make their costs of production. In the past year, on average, growers pocketed 17.2 cents a pound for apples that cost them 22.5 cents a pound to grow. Small wonder that apple trees are being replaced by cherries and wine grapes. At one point, 20,000 acres of apples carpeted the Okanagan. That number’s down to 8,500 today and continues to shrink.

“One does not have to be an economist to realize that that situation is simply not sustainable and so we’ve got to find a way to turn this around,” says Joe Sardinha, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association. The stakes are considerable. Apples are Canada’s largest fruit crop in terms of tonnage, and its second most valuable agricultural crop. B.C. alone grows over a billion apples each year and apple growing in B.C.’s Interior contributes around $720 million to the economy annually.


Image: Adam Blasberg
Cheryl Hampson and Ken Haddrell, power couple of
the apple industry.

Breeding B.C. apples

One school of thought is to breed our way out of the mess, since newer, better apple varieties can be more profitable. The Ambrosia apple, a flagship B.C. breed, is a price leader. This year, growers got exactly a quarter for each pound of Ambrosias grown. They pocket 36.1 cents a pound for the top earner, Pink Lady. But Macintosh, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Spartan, Fuji and Golden Delicious, which make up 44.5 per cent of B.C.’s apple crop, lost growers money. The Spartan, PARC’s first success as the only apple breed produced from a formal scientific breeding program at the time, is yesterday’s news. Growers get a measly 12.4 cents a pound for it. Even Galas, the yellow labs of apples, cost growers a penny a pound to grow. 

Whether Hampson’s varieties will offer salvation for an industry headed deep into the red, thanks to a strong Canadian dollar and competitors in Washington that have economies of scale working for them, is a multi-million-dollar question. With Washington state eclipsing B.C.’s apple production by a factor of 30 (we grow four million 40-pound cartons a year. They’re at 120 million), many in the business believe adopting new varieties is the only way forward. “I don’t think we can really compete head on head with Washington state,” says Jim Campbell, industry specialist with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture. “We have to do something different . . . get out of the old rut, try something new.”

New apples that taste better, are easier to grow and store longer can offer growers a competitive and financial edge. “What you’re offering the grower is an opportunity to realize more net return per acre, whether it’s a return per pound to him or by better production or a better pack-out,” says Ken Haddrell, operations manager at the Okanagan Plant Improvement Corp., known in the industry by its acronym, PICO. (Haddrell and Hampson are married, making them the closest thing to a power couple in the apple world.)

Images: Adam Blasberg
At the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative packing
house in Oliver, each apple is photographed
digitally 10 times from all angles, then washed,
hoovered, waxed and stickered before being pack-
aged for shipment to retailers.


PICO, which got started in 1993 with funding from the federal government and the B.C. Tree Fruit Growers’ Association, safeguards the intellectual property rights of plant-breeders, and licenses and commercializes B.C.-developed fruit varieties. It returns a percentage of its fruit royalties to the receiver general for Canada and reinvests any other profits (if any) into the Okanagan fruit growing industry. 

In order for an apple to even meet the consumer, it has to be disease- and pest-resistant, and able to handle the rigours of a changing climate. It must taste fresh months after picking and go on to survive navigating the packing house. It must travel, stack and sell well. 

The thing is, some people believe that Hampson has already bred the holy grail of apples, the Aurora. Its pale green countenance belies a burst of juicy flesh, whose sapidity is graced with lychee and elderflower notes. It’s got enough crunch to last from the first bite to your back teeth. “The internal qualities of this apple, the taste, the pressure, the storage capability are second to none,” says Rob Smith, founder of BerryMobile Fruit Distribution Inc. in Vancouver. “Put against any apple in a blind taste test, it’s never been beat.” What went wrong? Well, for starters, upon meeting the Aurora, the head of PARC at the time had a better name for it: I wish I were red. 

In 1981, researchers at PARC crossed two red apples, Splendour and Gala. It was a good piece of matchmaking. Twenty years later, and their progeny’s stars are still rising. The Nicola, just entering the market, came out of that cross. So did its sibling, Aurora. Likewise with SPA 493, a bi-coloured apple that is being farm-tested. 

There are two things you need to understand about apples. First, an apple is not an apple. “A cherry is a cherry, an apricot is an apricot; for that matter a peach is a peach,” says Haddrell. “But apples? Apples are sold by name.” Second, apples are a lot like racehorses. Their bloodlines matter and the pack that they’re racing against is faster and stronger than ever. (Even their names read like a racing program. As the offspring of Splendour and Gala, which itself is begat by Golden Delicious, Aurora’s full name is Aurora Golden Gala.) 


Image: Adam Blasberg
B.C. produces four million 40-pound cartons of
apples a year, almost all of them coming from the
Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. Here they
await shipment at the Okanagan Tree Fruit
Cooperative packing house in Oliver.


Predicting the flavour future of apples

The entire process of developing a brand-new cultivar from seed to farm-testing takes about 15 years, which means that apple researchers have to read into the apple trends of 2030 today (known apple trends thus far: solid-coloured apples are out of mode; those with a red blush fare best; Eastern Canada likes its apples more tart than Western Canada).

PARC’s 90 hectares of orchard are home to a rotating population of 30,000 new apple varieties (which is to say that apple varieties outnumber Summerland citizens five to one). Each year Hampson and her colleagues patrol the rows of apples, high-grading about 800 to be evaluated by the pre-tasting panel. Each row of apple siblings is a dizzying farrago of colours: red, orange, carmen, pink, maroon, purple, pale yellow, lemon yellow, rust. They come speckled, striped, solid, blotchy, freckled, squat, ribbed, heart-shaped. There are apples that taste like pink lemonade, apples that taste of dirty sock (that one in particular traumatized McKenzie; she never looks at a purplish apple with white lenticels the same since). Everything that an apple ever could be, it probably is somewhere on-site. 

The odds of finding a winner are slim. It’s estimated that one plant in 60,000 to 100,000 is good enough to make it. “They’re like people,” says Hampson, whose jollity is often punctuated by a peal of laughter. “I haven’t run across one yet that’s flawless.” 

To visit a fruit-packing house, where 50,000 apples are sorted to within an inch of their lives every hour, is to take the romance out of eating an apple. “We take the fruit from the orchard and put it into a box so that it can get to our customer,” Cam Stewart, assistant plant manager at the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative packing house in Oliver, shouts over the din. “We make sure that all the bad apples along the way are removed.”

What this looks like is a several-hundred-metre-long apple obstacle course. Each apple is washed, bathed, plucked, rolled, brushed, photographed 10 times digitally from all angles, herded into a flute of water, hoovered, stored, waxed and stickered. The end result is boxes of apples categorized into as many as 27 different groups of size and quality. 

This might sound like overkill, but the market demands it. “The grading standards have gotten a lot more strict over the years,” says Stewart. “The customer’s looking for a better apple for their money. So the Safeways of the world are expecting a lot tighter criteria for their fruit.”

A couple of years ago the packing house gave Aurora a try. The fruit weren’t thinned right and were barely larger than Ping-Pong balls. Worse, the thin-skinned Aurora bruised badly as it went down the line. “We did think that we did have a winner with the Aurora,” says BCFGA’s Sardinha. “But it has some cosmetic problems.”

“Most of [the growers] have grafted it over because the packing house gave it the thumbs down,” says Hampson. In the Okanagan, 85 per cent of apples go through the packing houses and an apple is doomed without their blessing. As a clipping pinned on Hampson’s bulletin board reads, “A failure will not appear until a unit has passed final inspection.” 

There’s a long list of apples that never made it. From PARC alone, there’s the Spencer, Creston, Shamrock, Silken, Sumac, Sinta, Chinook – the list goes on. While the Aurora isn’t relegated to the scrap heap quite yet, the fact that it faltered so badly at the gate has been damning. And then there was the colour handicap. “It would be a world-dominating apple if it was red, but it’s yellow,” says Smith. The Aurora’s grandparent, the mushy Golden Delicious, can be thanked for that. 

Apples used to only come in three colors. “Green ones are sour, yellow ones are soft and red ones are sweet,” says Haddrell. But then in the ’80s things changed. “Fuji, Gala, Braeburn – they sort of raised the eating quality bar and suddenly the old Red Delicious didn’t seem so good anymore,” says Hampson. Today yet another generation of apples has moved in, including Ambrosias, Pink Ladies and the Honeycrisp, an eastern variety developed by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station’s Horticultural Research Center. 

Aurora still has its champions. Many growers swear by it and stores including Whole Foods, Choices, Nestors and the IGA at 41st and Dunbar see its value and will stock it. Meanwhile Auvil Fruit Co. Inc. in Orondo, Washington, is licensed to grow it. Auvil has 80 acres of Aurora trees, which produced 38,000 boxes this year. Next year the grower will increase Aurora’s footprint to 100 acres (bear in mind the average apple farm in B.C. is 10 acres). “We like to try to be ahead of the curve with something exciting,” says Ray Norwood, a sales representative at Auvil Fruit. “After trying it and seeing how it tasted . . . it turns out that it’s got delicious eating qualities.” 

The fact that Aurora is meeting warm reception in the States speaks volumes to Vancouver’s Rob Smith, and it drives him a bit nutty: “If we can get our big packing houses to look at the Aurora as not an inconvenience but as a future star, then maybe with that attitude it would get more traction.” 

Down in the turquoise Convair walk-in coolers at PARC, research scientist Peter Toivonen is running storage experiments that he believes will mark Aurora’s redemption. Apples are kept in controlled atmosphere chambers after they are picked, to increase their longevity. By keeping the apples cool in a chamber with low oxygen, no nitrogen, and a ripening inhibitor, the apples enter a state of suspended animation. That’s how consumers get fresh apples all year round.

This past February Toivonen ran taste tests on Aurora and SPA 493 that had been in cold storage (apple lingo for a very cold fridge) for five months. These apples weren’t sent into hibernation using controlled atmosphere, and there were no expensive ripening inhibitors. They were simply put in a cold dark room and left there for months on end. And they tasted great. This year Toivonen is pushing their storage potential even further, to eight months. “When I put one of them in a cold room for eight months and I don’t see them change, that’s something to get excited about. I don’t know of any other apples that do that,” he says, eyes alight. A variety that needs only a cold room to last for months shifts the cost factors of growing apples and the sustainability of the industry, Toivonen explains. “It could change the whole story.”