EverCrisp: From grassroots breeding to the global spotlight for Honeycrisp-Fuji cross

April 17 , 2018

“It’s probably the greatest eating apple many of us have ever tasted,” says International Pome Fruit Alliance (IPA) manager Peter Dall. 

In this case ‘us’ refers to some of the world’s leading apple experts – his colleagues at the IPA who nonetheless have a vested interest in the success of MAIA 1, an apple cultivar for which they have the global rights outside the United States to grow and market under the brand ‘EverCrisp’.

Its variety name comes from the group that bred it, the Ohio-based Midwest Apple Improvement Association (MAIA), while the number draws attention to the fact this Honeycrisp-Fuji cross is the entity’s first ever release.

“It’s not the most beautiful, but Honeycrisp isn’t the most beautiful apple either. It’s very similar to Honeycrisp in looks but eating quality is outstanding,” Dall tells Fresh Fruit Portal

MAIA president Bill Dodd says the excitement from IPA partners – including VOG and VI.P in Italy, Fruitways in South Africa, Heartland in New Zealand, Montague Fresh in Australia and San Clemente in Chile – has been “very humbling”.

“The Midwest Apple Improvement Association is a grassroots organization that was a bunch of apple growers that started breeding apples and having the seedlings put out at the grower locations,” he says of the group that started up in the late 90s.

“We all thought we would come up with something, but nobody thought we would come up with something so successful as MAIA 1. 

“When your goals are modest it’s kind of overwhelming to see what’s happened.”

To understand just how grassroots the MAIA is, its origins started with the founders asking members in the Midwest to “put in US$100 a year to cover the cost of establishing seedlings and some of the basic costs”.

“Then the growers in the organization were asked to take the seedlings to their farms, to plant them and take care of them. We don’t have one location – we don’t own any land,” says Dodd, adding Ohio State University Extension staff have also helped over the years with evaluations and harvesting. 

Dodd was one of the original members, and as varieties including MAIA 1 started to look promising in the late 2000s, he assumed a more business-oriented role to establish trademarks, plant variety rights and a global strategy.

MAIA president Bill Dodd.

In simple terms the result of these efforts was a patent for EverCrisp in 2012 and a deal with IPA in 2016, but what is it that makes the fruit so special?

“It has a wonderful texture and flavor, and the storability is incredible,” says Dodd of the late variety, which is picked at a similar time to Cripps Pink (marketed as Pink Lady).

“We’re mainly working with the retailers that it has been offered to and getting feedback from them, and so far the feedback has been very good. So far we’ve had limited production and limited volume.”

The only commercial orchards to speak of are in the United States, with Michigan leading the way followed by New York State and Ohio. Retail sales to date have also been mostly in these three states in addition to Texas.

MAIA has sold in excess of 600,000 trees in the country, and while there are no official planting figures he estimates production could cover around 600 acres to date. 

“There were around 25,000 cases this year so we’re just getting started. For the 2018 crop we’re estimating in excess of 100,000 cases,” says Dodd.

“There’s been a lot of interest. Moving forward we think that plantings will increase in 2020 and 2021.

Worldwide expansion

Dall says the most advanced plantings of MAIA 1 outside of the United States are in northern Italy, but current indications are that Chile could become the leader in terms of the amount of trees planted. 

“VOG and VI.P have got the trial plantings and they had their first meaningful one bin of apples this year,” he says.

“Next year it’ll be a lot more, and they are keen to push the go button even though testing hasn’t been completed. They will be planting meaningful numbers in 2020 at high elevations.” 

In his native South Africa, Dall says there were initial concerns that MAIA 1 may not be suited to the country’s climate given it was bred in a high chill part of the United States.

“But the first test trees in South Africa broke rest very nicely. We got good side branching that looks good, so we’re optimistic,” he says. 

“I think it is on the high chill side of an apple, but it’s not as high chill as Honeycrisp or even as Golden Delicious, so we think it’s medium chill to being on the high side.”

He adds the trees are apical dominant, have good crotch angles and haven’t presented any challenges yet.

“We will only get the first fruit in South Africa and Australia this coming 2019 summer, and New Zealand and Chile are going to be a year later in 2020,” he says.

“But John Skinner and his company [San Clemente in Chile] have taken the decision that they like it so much and they think if they go further down south they’ll be safe – so they’re bulking up trees as fast as they can to get a meaningful quantity in 2020.

“At this stage, but all the IPA members are very excited about the variety. It’s always been very well received – I’ve kept them in my home fridge for six months and it’s still crisp, crunchy, and if I give any to my friends to taste they ask, where can we get this apple?”

In light of developments in storage technology that have allowed for European fruit to stay in the market for longer, Dall says IPA’s plan will roughly be to market EverCrisp for seven months from the Northern Hemisphere and five months from the Southern Hemisphere.

“We’ll make sure that the volumes peak to year-round supply – not too much from the south and not too much from the north.

“Chile will be probably focused on the United States, but for the rest of us it’s Europe, Asia and the Middle East. That’s where we’re looking for it. 

“It will go down exceptionally well in the Mediterranean countries and the Middle East and Asia because of its brix of 16% plus and sweetness – it’s red, crunchy, and that’s what Asia is looking for.”

Chilean fruit grower-exporter upbeat about EverCrisp

San Clemente executive director John Skinner, IPA’s representative in Chile, emphasizes that in a market where so many different apple cultivars are released the association’s strategy is to only go after apples with a “wow” taste. 

“We want apples that  really offer something to consumers over and above the quite poor selection of good apples that are currently available,” he says.

Skinner reflects on his first exposure to EverCrisp in a field in the United States. 

“We were walking through a test block where new varieties are with a group of people who spend a lot of time tasting apples and evaluating them, criticizing them, basically looking for the apple that’s got something to offer,” he says.

“And I can remember very clearly the look and the expression on the faces of some of these experts when they bit into the EverCrisp for the first time – that powerful crunch, that juiciness which is quite unique. 

“That basically convinced us that this was an apple that IPA was interested in.”

Skinner says EverCrisp’s taste is “probably better than its looks” but its crispiness combined with the sweetness from the Fuji parent makes it quite distinctive.

“Unlike some apples that will stand out on the shelf because of the brightness of their color and things like that, this is one where people are going to come back for the taste and eating experience,” Skinner says.

“It’s light in texture but it goes crunch in your mouth, and you get this explosion of sweetness and juiciness which is quite unique.

He confirms San Clemente has plans to plant the first commercial hectares in Chile in 2020. But in terms of production areas, what will past challenges for Honeycrisp cultivation in Chile mean for MAIA 1?

“It’s an apple that we believe will be more attracted to colder climates than warmer climates. That means moving south,” he says.

This move to higher latitudes is part of a gradual shift for San Clemente that began in the 1980s with production outside Talca. 

“That was considered far too far south to grow apples really. Nowadays I’m currently planting a big apple orchard in Perquenco just north of Temuco,” he says.

“Our main surface of apples are planted in the Angol region. We started in Talca 250km south of Santiago, then in the early 2000s we developed the Angol area 500km south of Santiago, and now we’re planting at 650km south of Santiago.

“It’s quite a variety-specific cause. Back in the 80s when the workhorses were Granny Smith and Red Delicious it was okay to plant in Rancagua or San Fernando, but then the newer varieties in general tend to adapt better to a cooler climate and we believe this will be the case for MAIA 1.”

When asked about the season, Skinner says the crop quality in Chile has been very good this year.

“The growing conditions were very favorable and probably the shortage of apples in Europe is opening the window a little wider than it has been in previous seasons,” he says.

Another variety in the offing

Dall believes MAIA 1 is one of “two winners” in the IPA stable that could reach meaningful quantities in the future.

The other, yet to be branded and with a name he does not yet wish to reveal, is a red apple developed by Better3Fruit in Belgium – the same group that bred Kanzi.

“It’s a very robust apple and it can take fairly rough handling. We’re very excited about it – it’s a late apple and it also picks at the end of October but we see huge opportunities for it into Asia and Southeast Asia,” Dall says.

“But it’s really made for Africa, it can go on the back of a bicycle for 30km, no problem. It colors very well, it’s attractive.

“It’s got a high pressure but you don’t have to sharpen your teeth to get into it.”

He adds the Better3Fruit-developed variety is also scab-resistant, which means it doesn’t need to be sprayed as much – a key requisite for the European market nowadays.

“It hasn’t got a thick skin which a lot of scab-resistant varieties tend to have,” he adds.

“So with that one VOG are planting 300,000 trees in 2020. They’ve really put their hand up and ordered the trees – I’ve just signed the contract on it – it’s all systems are go on that one.

“In South Africa we’re just as excited and I know John Skinner is, and I know the Americans are and we have worldwide rights for that.”

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