Thinking small made big changes

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Bruce Barritt, WSU apple breeder, displays the WA 2, released this fall from the breeding program he started 15 years ago. The industry hopes the new variety will become popular.

Apple breeder 'led the charge' taking flagship industry in a new direction

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

Bruce Barritt's father and grandfather both made a living working with plants and gardens, so it seemed only natural that young Barritt would study horticulture when he went off to college.

The Penticton, British Columbia, native graduated from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 1964, went straight for his master's degree there and then earned his doctorate in pomology from Cornell University in New York in 1969.

Today, Barritt is known as the father of Washington State University's apple breeding program, which released its first new variety this fall. And he is credited with persuading the state apple industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s to switch from low-density large trees to the European model of smaller, high-density trees for more efficient production.

Barritt was always interested in fruit. His doctoral work was in apples and grapes. But after Cornell, he began his 40-year career with WSU as a strawberry and raspberry breeder at the university's extension center in Puyallup.

Barritt was transferred to the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee in 1981.

"Bruce came here knowing little about the apple industry, but had the perception of seeing where it needed to go," said Eugene Kupferman, the center's post-harvest specialist.

Barritt traveled to other apple-producing areas of the world looking for ideas and liked Europe's dwarf rootstocks, small trees and high yields of high-quality fruit. He "led the charge" for that in Washington, Kupferman said, often at annual meetings of the Washington State Horticultural Association.

Low prices for Red Delicious finally help prompt change, Barritt said.

In 1992, Barritt wrote a book, "Intensive Orchard Management." That same year he was appointed education director of the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association.

By 1994, the industry was switching to high-yield, smaller trees, and Barritt started the first systematic apple-breeding program in the Northwest. His goal was to increase the number of varieties and grower returns.

Barritt crossed different varieties and continually crossed results, germinating seed and budding seedlings onto rootstock. He was always evaluating.

Typically, breeding programs take 25 to 40 years to produce an acceptable new variety, but with growers desiring results sooner and financing from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, Barritt produced a new variety in 15 years.

The WA 2 is said to be crisp, juicy and flavorful. Growers are eager to plant samples next spring, and they hope it becomes a big seller.

Barritt retired in June 2008 and returned to British Columbia. But he visits Wenatchee and continues with the center as professor emeritus, mainly working toward commercialization of more new varieties.

He helped recruit his successor, Kate Evans, a molecular biologist and apple and pear breeder from England.

Evans' skills, along with those of two genomics scientists at WSU in Pullman, will take the program to a new level, Barritt said.

"For example, ethylene is a ripening hormone, and a gene controls that. We can put that into new varieties," he said.

"The opportunity exists," Barritt said, "for WSU to have the best apple and cherry breeding programs in the world."

Bruce Barritt

Occupation: Washington State University professor emeritus, apple tree breeding program founder

Age: 67

Location: Kelowna, B.C.; formerly Wenatchee, Wash.

Education: Doctorate in pomology from Cornell University, 1969

Quote: "The opportunity exists for WSU to have the best apple and cherry breeding programs in the world."

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