Growers pick before planting
By DAN WHEAT
Apple growers wrestle with lots of choices when it comes to deciding which varieties to plant.
Thirty years ago, growers just ordered more Red or Golden Delicious if they needed more trees. Twenty years ago, they reached for Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith and a few others.
Now new varieties come along all the time. Growers want greater diversification, but they also have to put more thought into what grows best and will make them money.
Most major companies are investing in their own club or managed varieties that they hope will take off with consumers.
"In my opinion, it becomes harder every year to launch a new apple. There are so many already out of the gate," said Scott McDougall, co-owner and general manager of orchard operations of McDougall & Sons Inc. in Wenatchee, Wash.
Many new varieties come from other countries. Washington companies buy exclusive U.S. rights to grow them and recruit their grower members to join in.
Now the WA 2 and WA 5 are available. They are from the Washington State University breeding program and have the advantage of being bred to grow best in Washington.
So far in the first year just 136 growers have paid $600 for five trees to enter the trial phase of WA 2. WSU and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission reportedly were hoping for more.
It's a dilemma for companies to determine how much to spend on the WA 2 and WA 5 versus their own club or managed varieties, said Kate Evans, WSU apple breeder.
They may not really want to spend money on WA 2 and WA 5, but feel they can't afford to be left behind if one of them is a hit.
The dilemma is accentuated by the fact that there's only a five-year window to get into those programs. It will cost more to sign up later if production takes off.
The sign-up period for the grower evaluation phase is every January to March 31 for five years after the release. That makes a March 31, 2014, deadline for the WA 2 and a March 31, 2015, deadline for the WA 5. Only growers who join the evaluation phase may buy for commercial production.
The royalty fee is determined by the number of boxes packed annually or possibly acres planted. It escalates on a scale up to $5 per tree or $5,000 per acre once 5 million boxes are shipped or if 5,000 acres are planted.
The royalty is a one-time fee, determined annually, said Tom Auvil, Research Commission horticulturist.
Evans said getting in early means lower costs to establish a block of WA 2 or WA 5 but higher marketing costs. Getting in later means higher planting costs but lower marketing costs.
The rules are intended, Auvil said, to reward the growers who take the risk and expense of stepping in first. His uncle, the late Grady Auvil, of Orondo, bore the cost of developing and promoting the Granny Smith and the whole industry benefited.
Growers who don't buy WA 2 or WA 5 can buy later varieties of the breeding program, Auvil said. There are 10 more elite varieties in the works with five as good as any apple on the market now, he said.
The idea, he said, isn't to find a new 30-million-box variety, equal in volume to Red Delicious, but to have a steady stream of improved varieties tailored for growing in Washington and that produce good returns.
"A new apple had better be good when it can cost up to $30,000 an acre to get into a new planting system," McDougall said. "If you bet wrong, it's a quicker way to the graveyard."
McDougall & Sons bought 10 WA 2 trees, but McDougall said if it has to be harvested at the same time as the company's club variety, Ambrosia, that alone would be enough reason for him not to go commercial with WA 2.
Naming the varieties is another issue. McDougall and others in the industry want the commission or WSU to give the new varieties' names. The commission doesn't want to choose names because it doesn't want to be involved in marketing.
Letting growers pick names could make for unfair situations, but Auvil said those who feel shorted will have chances with the next varieties.
The system is out of the comfort zone of many in the industry, he said, but it's less risk than club and managed varieties, which can cost $500,000 in trademark and legal fees years in advance.
Many growers have bought into the WA 2 so far, but less than half of the major companies, he said. Growing operations of at least three major marketers have bought in.
It took several years of conversations to bring the breeding program to this point, Auvil said, and it may take a few more years to iron out the marketing end.