James Luby doesn't buy scratch-offs from the local convenience store or play the slots at the casino, but the 63-year-old admits he likes to gamble as part of his job. For Luby, his ties to games of chance come from spending hundreds of hours toiling in labs and fields each year mixing scientific know-how with educated guesses to create a much less flashier prize: the next popular apple variety.
"We like to say sometimes that it's a bit of a lottery game," said Luby, a professor at the University of Minnesota who oversees the apple breeding program with David Bedford and a team of researchers. "It's trying to make a lot of tickets and eventually hope the right numbers come up."
The university typically has anywhere between 15,000 and 25,000 apple trees planted on 30 acres of land about 30 miles west of Minneapolis, with roughly two-thirds of them producing fruit annually. Most of the trees come from seed created by the breeding team. At any one time, researchers are evaluating 100 experimental lines for their potential but success can be difficult to obtain for these fledgling fruits — each year 15 to 20 lines are thrown out after several years of development and testing.
Luby estimated about one of every 200 seeds they create show enough promise to advance to the next round of development. For those that move forward, researchers plant multiple seeds from the promising variety to make sure the same characteristics appear in the fruit from each one. If apples can pass through this stage — only about 5% do — the university works with growers to plant more trees and and harvest the fruit, allowing observers to see how the apples hold up during packing and time in cold storage several months after they're picked.
On average, it takes about 20 years before consumers see fruit from the original seed and another five years before it's widely available. The University of Minnesota's most famous apples include Honeycrisp, introduced in 1991, as well as newer varieties now on the market such as SweeTango and Rave.
Inside a good apple
When Luby and his team are evaluating an apple, they must carefully balance a lengthy list of attributes that explain why the odds are not promising for an apple to eventually make it to market. They not only look at taste — a good fruit needs the right amount of sugar, acid to balance out the sweetness and aromatic compounds that make an apple smell like an apple — but also the right color and an attractive finish.
"It was one of those things that I still remember the first time I ate it. And it was like 'Wow, okay, this is going to be a variety. This one is good enough. This one is going to make it' and sure enough it did."
Professor, University of Minnesota
Recent apple varieties in the field have conjured up tastes like cherry candy, berries or cloves that can make for an interesting flavor but aren't likely to make it far in the process.
"It can, especially in small amounts, make for an interesting flavor, but get too much of it and it's just kind of weird," Luby said. "That's not what an apple should taste like."
Beyond the taste and appearance, an apple also needs to have a favorable texture, with the perfect mix of crispness, juiciness and a moderately firm consistency when someone takes a bite. The fruit needs to be free from bruises, disease resistant, produce a predictable bumper crop each year to support growers and retailers, and hold up when it's shipped or held in cold storage.
Keeping the category 'fresh and exciting'
Apples are the most popular fruit in the United States, with the average person consuming more than 25 pounds of the fruit in some form, according to data from the USDA. Nearly 10 pounds of annual consumption is fresh. While U.S. growers across 32 states produce more than 100 different varieties of apples, data from the U.S. Apple Association showed the most popular are Gala, Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith and Fuji.
Jim Bair, president of the U.S. Apple Association, estimated 98% of retail sales for the fruit come from 30 varieties, many of which appear only when in season, with revenue heavily weighted to the most popular offerings. A few retailers have told the trade group there are too many varieties, but Bair said consumers will sort that out depending on what they buy.
"It's a tough business, but I think the fact that we have all these varieties is magnificent. There is a taste for every palate, and people enjoy new eating experiences and tastes," Bair said. While diehard varieties like Red Delicious will remain on the market, he noted that new flavors such as those created by the University of Minnesota and other researchers is "essential to keeping the category fresh and exciting and expanding."
The process of creating an apple is as much science as it is pure guesswork despite the use of DNA testing that now allows researchers to identify markers linked to certain traits early in the process.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota take one trait they like, say an apple that has a cherry flavor, and crossbreed it with another lauded for something like its crispiness. To do that, the flowers on a tree designated as the mother are covered with a bag to prevent bees and other insects from pollinating them — scientists want to make sure specific traits are brought over from the desired father tree.
When the flower opens inside the bag, pollen collected from the tree with the crisp characteristic is applied by the breeder's finger on flowers from the apple that tastes like cherry to mimic the natural pollination process. The bag is then put back on to prevent other pollen from making its way into the flower; the seeds are then pulled from the fruit after it's harvested later in the year. During the winter, the seeds are planted in a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse before the tiny trees are transplanted to the field the following summer. It takes roughly five years before they produce fruit.
The name game
The University of Minnesota's fruit breeding program has been running continuously since 1908, and during that time has churned out nearly 30 apple varieties. The first one called Minnehaha apple, which produces a dark red fruit that is somewhat flat in shape, never gained traction in the market because it was soon superseded by better varieties from the breeding program.
While most seedling trees are unlikely to ever make it to market, Luby said every once in a while he tries an apple and knows it's a winner. In 1999, he recalled taking a bite of the SweeTango apple variety — an offspring of the popular Honeycrisp loaded with crunch, juiciness and high sugar and acidity — fresh off the tree.
“It was one of those things that I still remember the first time I ate it," he said. "And it was like 'Wow, okay, this is going to be a variety. This one is good enough. This one is going to make it' and sure enough it did.” SweeTango has only been on the market since 2015.
The real litmus test for an apple, Luby said, is when researchers take a bite of one in the orchard. Starting in early August through the beginning of November, teams of two to four people comb through fields to search for ripe apples. At the season's peak in early- to mid-September, each person might take a bite (they don't swallow what they try) of 500 apples collected from as many as 200 different trees.
“When you are tasting that much fruit, of course, there’s a fatigue factor and you really have to concentrate after a while," Luby admitted.
Once the apple team settles on a variety they like that has backing from growers and marketers, the hard work shifts from the field and lab to a conference room. One of the most "trying experiences," Luby said, is choosing a name to market an apple that's not only appropriate for the new fruit but withstands a thorough legal check. A group of university officials, licensing experts and marketers come up with three or four names that an intellectual property manager and outside legal counsel check out.
“We’re disappointed more often than we are rewarded in the naming process. You think of it like naming your kids. It’s actually harder than naming your kids," Luby said. "For an apple it has to be unique. It can’t have been used before, and also from the trademark it can’t be really similar. ... It actually is really a trying part of the whole experience."
For now, Luby and others are working to come up with a name for a new apple variety called Minnesota 1980 while talking with nurseries to plant trees that will eventually grow the fruit. At the same time, they're feverishly working inside their labs and sprawling field searching for the next Honeycrisp that will catch on with fickle consumers at the supermarket.
"It's very gratifying if the fruit looks and eats good — that is, it has been grown well, harvested and stored properly and handled with care by the retailer," Luby said when he sees the fruit at stores. "My colleague David Bedford and I "compare notes about our first sightings. Probably kind of like excited birdwatchers."