Late Blooming-Disease Resistant Apple Breeding

Final Report for FNC07-675

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $8,760.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


We are primarily apple growers and have been since 1860. The financial foundation of our family was Rome Beauty, a late blooming dependable cropper that originated near our great grandfather’s home near the Ohio River. It was Rome Beauty money that enabled our grandfather to buy an 80 acre orchard near Columbus, Ohio in 1919 where marketing opportunities were better. It was Rome Beauty money that enabled him to expand the orchard near Columbus where he planted another late bloomer, Golden Delicious in the 1920s. Our family grew many kinds of apples over the years but cost accounting showed it was the profits from only two cultivars, Romes and Goldens (both late bloomers), that enabled our family to acquire adjoining farms and expand the orchards to nearly 600 acres by the late 1980s.

In the late 1980s new cultivars like Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji and Braeburn arrived in the U.S. It was clear they would capture increasing market share because they tasted and kept better than other apples so we planted 1,000s of them. But like many apples we had tried to grow in the past they bloomed too early to be consistently reliable croppers in our Midwest location. Growers in locations with the maritime influence of the Great Lakes, where wind blowing across nearby cold water in the spring delays bloom dates of apples genetically wired for earlier bloom have less difficulty growing the early bloomers. For us, and other Midwest apple growers, spring freezes during bloom reduced yields too frequently on the newer apples while we watched the market share of our traditional late bloomers slip away. Apple production for us peaked in the late 1980s at 240,000 bushels per year. Now we grow less than 100,000 bushels/yr. with record amounts of vacant land waiting for the disease resistant late bloomers we can grow.

We asked the apple breeders at Purdue, Illinois and Rutgers who were breeding and selecting for disease resistance if they could also select for late bloom and choose some parents that could move the bloom date later but they had bad news for us. They said funding for apple breeding was drying up. They said apples are a “minor” crop and apple breeding and slection is very slow, about 20 years from the time a cross is made until a new apple is released. They said administrators “became weary” of funding a process begun in the 1940s and in spite of steady improvement in their selections a new market endorsed winner had not been introduced. New crosses are no longer made at Purdue or Illinois and the program at Rutgers operates on a very small budget plus there is no selection pressure in New Jersey, near the Atlantic, for late bloomers.

Unfortunately the marathon effort to create sustainable apple production in the Midwest was collapsing just as the breeders were on the verge of producing some winners. Meanwhile we and other Midwest apple growers were feeling the need for improved disease resistance and late bloom more than ever as chemical costs were rising and early bloomers were capturing more of the market. By the mid 1990s as energy costs continued upward the notion that more food should be produced “locally” began to be heard. Local apple production in the Midwest was dependent on late blooming, economically sustainable apple cultivars. It became clear, we growers needed to start our own apple breeding program and with the help of SARE, we did it and are continuing it preliminary results well beyond our expectations. The Midwest Apple Improvement Association was founded by me and Mr. Ed Fackler, a tree fruit nurseryman in southern Indiana at that time. Today we have about 75 members, mostly growers with a few nurserymen and other supporters from 10 states. To our knowledge it is the only apple breeding program in the world founded by growers, funded by growers, and operated by growers. Early selections for advanced testing have caught the attention of European Nurseryman who have flown here several times trying to acquire rights to our genetics while our low profile effort has been less noticed closer home.

This particular SARE grant was used to evaluate potential parents, make crosses and start seedlings using disease resistant late blooming parents with special emphasis on segregating the seedlings according to their germination dates and tracking them to see if they segregate similarly with regard to leafing out and eventually the correlation with the bloom dates. If in fact it turns out that late to germinate seedlings are the same ones that are late bloomers substantial time, money and space can be saved when breeding for late bloomers by discarding the early to germinate seedlings immediately.

We have used integrated pest management techniques since the mid 1970s to reduce insecticide and miticide use. Learning to use pheremone traps, predator identification and learning to tolerate minimal plant damage below economic thresholds have all contributed to a more economically and enviromentally sustainable farming operation. In the 1970s we also found that placing Kestrel nesting boxes strategically around the orchards enabled us to eliminate the annual purchase of 3 tons of mouse bait (poison grain). For as long as I can remember we have maintained sod waterways to control soil erosion. We built specialized pesticide storage and mixing facilities to contain and recycle any spills or accidental pesticide discharges in the 1970s before such facilities became recommended practices. We established the first large scale (3,000 trees) planting of Goldrush apples (naturally resistant to apple scab, powdery mildew and fire blight), in the world in 1998 while they were still un-named, not yet released and known only as HER4T16 to a few researchers. They have since become the number 3 seller in our direct marketing program.

This project is all about developing disease resistant apples that bloom later in the spring than presently available commercial apples. The work involved in evaluating known late blooming apples and choosing the ones with the least number of objectionable flaws like poor flavor, poor keeping quality, pre-harvest drop, poor yield etc. and collecting pollen from the best to use in making crosses with the best disease resistant apples we have access to in hopes of obtaining new late blooming disease resistant apples that will appeal both to apple growers and consumers. We paid special attention to the germination dates of the seeds, and segregated the seedlings according to their germination dates with the intent to track them over the next 7 to 10 years to see if the late to germinate seeds produced seedlings that are consistently late bloomers every spring. If this turns out to be the case the cost of creating late bloomers can be substantially reduced by discarding the early germinators immediately and avoiding the cost of their care during the 7 to 10 year pre-production period.

To identify and evaluate late blooming apples and use them as breeding parents to be crossed with several of the best available disease resistant apples in hopes of creating some late blooming disease resistant apples. We wanted to segregate the emerging seedlings by their germination dates and track them into the future to see if early to germinate seedlings also turn out to be seasonally late bloomers 7 to 10 years later when they begin blooming.

The first thing I did was to access the data base in Geneva NY at the U.S.D.A. Germplasm Repository for apples and download all the studies that recorded the bloom date of their apples along with their susceptibility to fire blight because it has long been suspected that the late bloomers in apple are the most susceptible to fire blight infection. Of the 4,000 + accessions listed about a dozen bloom very late and are only “moderately” susceptible to fire blight. Of these I chose the best five with regard to fruit quality and absence of production flaws, ordered cuttings and had future potential breeding stock propagated onto precocious dwarfing rootstocks for distribution to selected members of the Midwest Apple Improvement Association for the production of pollen at several locations mostly south of where we would be applying the pollen to our best disease resistant selections farther North to avoid storing pollen in freezers for a year. The cultivars I chose for this were Kinsei (Japan), Pohorka (Slovenia) and Edward VII, Winston, and Sandringham (all from England).

Numbers of late blooming pollen source trees planted by grower
Cooperator..............Location...........Kinsei....Pohorka....Edward VII....Winston....Sandringham
Staton, Richard.......Flat Rock, NC........5............2............2................2................2
Doud, David............Wabash, IN..........2............1...........20...............1................1
Doud, Steve...........Denver, IN...........2............1............0................1................1
Eckert, Jim.............Belleville, IL..........9............3...........10...............8................3
Pratt, Ed................South Point, OH...3............3............1................0................0
Lynd, Mitch............Johnstown, OH.....2............2............2................1................3
Spring Hill...............Tipp City, OH........2............0............0................0................0
Demaree, Tom........Williamson, NY......8............2............4................2................2

Pollen was collected from several currently available extremely late bloomers. They were Ralls Genet, Pomme Gris and Court Pendu Plat. In addition pollen was collected from Golden Delicious and “Watermelon”, two later than average bloomers with good track records as breeding parents for flesh quality. A third pollen source was used, Sweet 16, a late bloomer that has produced good results from a cross made earlier in our program. Pollen from these various sources were taken to R1, MSH10-1, Golden Delicious, Macoun and Scarlet O’Hara. In some crosses all the seedlings were kept and in others the first 75% of the seedlings to germinate in the greenhouse were discarded and only the last 25% to germinate were planted out to be grown on to fruiting maturity. Because it is hoped that the Midwest Apple Improvement Association will eventually be able to patent some of the seedlings from some of these crosses we cannot disclose the specific results of specific crosses at this time. We can say that there were huge variations in the germination dates among some of these crosses and that the leafing out dates the following spring was much greater than expected in some cases. Preliminary indications are that it will always be a good idea to discard at least the first 50% of the seedlings to germinate in all future crosses. We have many different lots segregated by germination date that will be monitored for the next 10 years. It is certain many will be very late bloomers and it is hoped one or more will find eventual market acceptance.

This is a very high risk project and it only makes sense to do it on a cooperative basis where any one participant has little at risk but access to any new promising genetic break through is assured.

The following people were involved in this project:

Dr. Diane Miller, The Ohio State University, tree fruit extension specialist for the State of Ohio has advised us about choosing breeding parents, evaluating new seedlings and is always available for advice about our trees.

Felix Cooper, Director of Research for Gardens Alive supervised the seed germination at Spring Hill Nursery in Tipp City, OH, and took responsibility for monitoring, selecting, and discarding thousands of seedlings in the greenhouses at germination time.

Bill Pitts, Nursery Manager for Wafler Nursery, Wocott, NY provided nursery propagation and took the extra time required to keep all the labeling correct on many small lots of trees, a thankless task and major nuisance for large scale nursery producers.

Jim Eckert, Eckert’s Inc., Bellville, IL; Greg Bachman, Carroll OH; Jim Moore, Oak Harbor, OH; Andy Lynd, Johnstown, OH; apple grower members who have all provided tree care for 10 years for thousands of MAIA seedling trees and help us evaluate fruit quality and determine the proper harvest dates, perhaps the single most difficult part of an apple breeding program.

Ed Fackler, retired Director of Research for Garden’s Alive, Corydon, IN. photographed and documented bloom dates of all the advanced MAIA selections at Eckert;s in Belleville, IL.

Ed Pratt, South Point, OH; Richard Stanton, Flat Rock, NC; David Doud, Wabash, IN; Steve Doud, Denver, IN; Felix Cooper, Tipp City, OH; Tom and Allison Demaree, Williamson, NY; all volunteered to plant and care for and evaluate potential breeding parents for late bloom.

Penny Lynd, Johnstown, OH, who recorded, photographed and entered data concerning bloom dates at Lynd Fruit Farm and Sunny Hill orchard at Carroll, OH.

John and Eleanor Smith, Westerville, OH, volunteers who collected pollen and hand pollinated thousands of flowers.

The spirit of cooperation in this project has been overwhelming. All 75 members of the Midwest Apple Improvement Association stand ready to help with their time and money because they recognize the need for access to better apples.

We have successfully established many new late blooming apple cultivars in many locations for evaluation purposes and eventually to be used as breeding parents in the generation of new apples with disease resistance and late bloom.

We have planted thousands of seedlings that are giving us preliminary indications that they will bloom late every spring when they become fruitfully mature in 7 to 10 years. The first preliminary indication of future late bloom is that thousands of them were very late to germinate from seeds and many were later than most commercial cultivars with regard to their bud break date in the spring. But only with the passage of time can we be certain we have achieved the goal of market acceptable, late blooming, disease resistant apples. As of now, results appear very promising.

Soon after the grant for this project was announced it was reported that apple scab, the primary disease our selections have resistance to, had successfully overcome the Vf gene that we have used to provide scab resistance in all our selections to date. Even though this resistance failure has not yet shown up in any of our plantings, plant pathologists have advised us that it will happen unless we begin spraying our trees at least once a year, during the peak infection period for scab, they will lose their current resistance to apple scab. It has become clear to us that breeding for late bloom will yield far more durable results than breeding for disease resistance. To stack more than one gene for scab resistance into our leading selections for more durable resistance to scab will take at least 10 more years and even then the durability will be uncertain.

There are much larger differences in the germination dates of apple seeds than I ever expected to find. In fact in one cross many of the seeds did not germinate until the following November in my refrigerator. It was too late to save them when I first noticed they had sprouted because they had already become infected with an unknown mold. When I spoke to Dr. Joe Gofreda at Rutgers about these extremely late germination dates he said apple breeders always threw away anything that hadn’t germinated during the first 120 of stratification. He went on to say most apple breeders discarded all un-germinated seeds after 90 days! Apparently apple breeders have always been discarding the potentially latest bloomers for decades either because they didn’t know about the likely relationship between germination dates and eventual bloom dates or it was irrelevant in their location. To us it is extremely important and I am eager to try more crosses with the expectation that some seeds may not germinate for a year or more and be better prepared to care for them at that time.

All the apple growers I know have become very concerned about being denied access to any new apple cultivars coming out of the apple breeding programs in Washington, Minnesota, and New York unless they are citizens of one of those states. They are all suddenly realizing they are facing an increasingly impossible to overcome competitive disadvantage with regard to new apple genetics. Growers have increased interest in this breeding program because of brutal political as well as economic competition.

With regard to what I would say to other farmers about SARE is that writing grant reports is far more difficult for semi-illiterate farmers like me than improving apples through a breeding program. I am very grateful for being chosen to receive this grant and I understand why this reporting is required but I must admit it reminds me of why I quit school 50 years ago. I am far better at doing stuff than writing about it later. In my case I should have figured out a way to have included money to hire a more competent writer. I see why big companies hire grant proposal writers and report writers. For me it is the biggest obstacle in the whole project!


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.