Evaluation of Apple Cultivars for Hard Cider Production in the Northeast

Progress report for FNE20-960

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2020: $8,980.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Walden Heights Nursery & Orchard
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Todd Parlo
Walden Heights Nursery & Orchard
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Project Information

Summary:

We propose to evaluate apple cultivars for potential use in hard cider production, especially varieties that thrive in northern climates and under organic/sustainable growing practices.

The hard cider market is growing exponentially, but there is a scarcity of suitable, domestically grown apples to meet the demand.  To successfully capitalize on this new market, growers need to know which apples to plant and which apples already in their orchards are suitable for hard cider production.  There is little unbiased and scientific data available to farmers interested in supplying fruit for this distinctive market.  Current information is limited to nursery catalogs/websites with a commercial interest and University/Extension publications that are meager in terms of numbers of cultivars assessed and details.

Our orchard in Walden, Vermont (zone 3) will serve as our test site as we cultivate more than 600 distinct apple varieties.  While we keep records routinely, this project will allow us time and resources to employ proper methodology for data collection, assessment and dissemination of findings to growers.

A selection of 200 trees in our orchard will have fruit evaluation including brix (sugar) content for fermentation, pH, titrable acidity, tannin content, fruit quality, yield, and tree performance (disease/pest issues, biennialism, etc.).

Since some of these cultivars have multiple uses, our project findings will likely benefit more than just hard cider/wine makers.

Outreach will include speaking engagements, workshops, our farm website, internet blogs, announcements to relevant organizations (including extension services and universities) for distribution to regional meetings, social media, listservs and podcasts.

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to provide crucial information regarding apple cultivars as it relates to the expanding cider market. 

As an orchardist, consultant, and nurseryman, I have seen the emerging cider market drastically alter the apple varieties being planted. Since very little data exists, many farmers are making poor choices and costly mistakes, often planting too tender of a variety for their region, or planting cultivars with limited use (many cider varieties have no other use beyond hard cider).  Our data will make it much easier for growers to make informed choices by reviewing our data and finding uses for each variety, including those that will be desired by the cider market and grow well in the region.

We will collect, analyze and publish data on 200 apple varieties in our zone 3 orchard.  Data to be collected includes tree performance, fruit qualities, readings from juice analysis, fruit assessments of pH and brix (sugar) level readings, tannin observations, acid titration analysis, and aromatics. Orchard performance assessment includes disease susceptibility, hardiness, and cropping.  Our recommendations will also consider marketing flexibility, meeting hard cider/cider demand, appropriateness for the northeast region and necessary growing practices for success.

Information will be expressed both in database form and narrative recommendations.  

Introduction:

Growing apples in the Northeast is challenging, especially for small scale, organic and sustainable farms.  Hard cider and specialty fresh ciders/juices can be a new market for these farms, but selection of varieties for these markets will be of great importance, as the cider industry is particular about the apples/cider they will purchase.  The lack of good information, specifically the unbiased, extensive and clearly stated data on apple cultivars for the cider market is a problem.

In order to produce dessert fruit for a market that demands unblemished fruit, apples are one of the most widely sprayed crops in agriculture.  Shamefully, less than perfect fruit is sold for near the cost of production. The USDA 2019 report1 shows an average of less than 10 cents per pound for processing apples (3 cents per apple), less than 10 percent of dessert grade. This means orchardists are forced to spray extensively or risk receiving pennies a pound. Not only is this path expensive, but it escalates environmental and health risks in agriculture. Alternatively, apples for cider grade need little or no pesticide application.

As an example, our own farm, traditionally sold sprayed organic fruit.  When we experimented with a no spray policy for 2 years we sold much of the crop as cider, saving thousands of dollars in spray costs alone. Overall profitability was greater than in years we sprayed, and we reduced any potential environmental damage.  We were able to do this because we have the proper varieties to market to the cider industry, at a higher return.

The hard cider market is experiencing impressive growth.  In 2017, hard cider sales in the US were $470 million ($118 million from small producers – a 41% increase in 2016 alone)2.  But need for cider fruit is exceeding local production making the import of fruit the only option.   Experts in the field have expressed increasing interest in expanding to meet this demand, but there is little information to assist growers in selecting appropriate apple varieties. 2 

For instance, cidermakers may have their list of favorites, but this is of little use without an understanding of how these varieties fare in our climate and which apples would be suitable replacements for varieties that do not do well in the Northeast.  Since there is little unbiased data on which varieties to plant or retain, farmers are likely to make poor selection choices. This can be disastrous.  Cornell University reflects this position: “Our data shows that traditional hard cider apple varieties are in demand from the hard cider producers, but growers have reservations about planting these varieties. Cidermakers and apple growers would likely benefit from working together to identify which varieties will best match each other’s needs….” 2 

Growing for the cider market is likely to yield:

  • improved productivity, reduced costs and/or increase of net farm income as cider/culinary grade fruit requires far less management and expenditures;
  • soil conservation, improved water quality, and protection of natural resources as pesticide application, fuel use and use of other inputs would be reduced;
  • enhanced employment in farm communities as a farmer can spend less on pesticides and more on labor (harvest, processing); and
  • reduced environmental and health risks that improve the quality of life for farmers, farm employees, and the community with less use of harmful pesticides and fungicides.

Despite the potential for cider market sales, growers should hedge their bets. Orchards are vulnerable to market whims, so selecting cultivars that can serve a variety of markets is a wise maneuver. With the aid of good cultivar data (pH, sugar, tannin levels, etc.) a grower can select varieties that suit hard cider, but are also useful for fresh cider, cooking, and fresh eating.  Clear data will also help farmers make good selections for organic growing practices, disease resistance and plans for adapting to markets in times of glut. The degree of information necessary for these decisions is almost nonexistent. 

Our project will evaluate 200 cultivars of apples and publish a report and database that will aid farmers in deciding which apple varieties to plant, retain, and market. We will give recommendations as well, based on marketing flexibility, meeting hard cider/cider demand, appropriateness for the northeast region and growing practices.

Since tree fruits take years to bear, can produce for decades, and have high establishment costs ($15,000/acre) cultivar selection is of paramount importance.  Our research will give orchardists, mixed production farms, and producers (like cidermakers) the information necessary to make intelligent and cost-effective decisions.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Terence Bradshaw - Technical Advisor (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

Our project will measure fruit analysis and orchard performance for 200 cultivars of apples to assist farmers in deciding which apple varieties to plant, retain, and market. The data will be collected weekly throughout two growing seasons (2020 and 2021).  Data will be recorded regularly in a format to be determined with assistance from Technical Advisor.  Data assessment will be done in the off-growing season.  

All trees to be evaluated are located within the same orchard. Areas have similar soil conditions, and in most cases similar aspect, altitude and competition pressures. At least two varieties of each cultivar are contained in the orchard. Orchard location is northern Vermont, US zone 3a, at 1,700 feet.

Measurements for fruit analysis include:

  • Brix Level (Soluble solids) – This is generally speaking the sugar levels in the fruit. Readings will be obtained through the use of a refractometer, (already on site). All will be collected from expressed fresh (unstored) juice from newly picked apples. Only tree ripened fruit will be used. Refraction will be at 68 degrees or calculated for adjustments.  Several samples of each variety will be tested to develop a good estimate of accuracy. Brix level is useful for understanding end use, particularly in hard cider production, as it shows the fermentable sugar, equating to ABV (alcohol level). Alcohol has importance in cider stability, body, etc. in addition to its apparent use.
  • pH – Readings will be taken electronic titration unit. Analysis taken at 68 degrees or calculated for adjustments. Juice for testing will be expressed from several average apples. Only ripe, newly picked apples will be used. Juice is extracted in a commercial juicer, using full apples, with seeds removed. Meter is left in solution for 5 minutes to get a good reading. 
  • Tannin – Reliable testing for this measure has not been developed to date, observations will be based on taste (this is the traditional method in industry). To enhance accuracy, we will neutralize acids in the extract with a mild base solution. Neutralizing will make the tannins more apparent, as acids (primarily malic) can give a false impression of astringency. Astringency is an expression of the polyphenols (tannins). Although the use of ferric chloride can show the presence of polyphenols, we will likely use this measure only to enhance the above method. 
  • Aromatics – observations only through perceived odors in the pressed juice, and perceptions upon tasting. 
  • Flavors – tastes will be observed only in the expressed juice, not in fresh eating. 
  • Acid Titration– This is the actual reading of juice acids, which in apples is primarily malic acid. It is distinct from pH, despite a relationship. Acids play a pivotal role in cider body, mouthfeel and flavor. Titration analysis is traditionally done through a simple but time-consuming procedure (in which the expressed juice is treated with a reagent until it is neutralized). Since at least 200 samples will obtained, we have chosen to purchase an electronic titration unit that will make the measurement instantly, saving much time. This meter will also make an instant pH reading as well, making it unnecessary to purchase an additional lab grade pH meter.

Measurements for orchard performance include:

  • Hardiness –  Trees will be assessed for winter damage based on observation. Dieback is apparent in cultivars at the shoot apex, and in rupturing of branch and trunk tissues. Trees will be analyzed both in late winter, and again after summer shoot extension. Recording will be in the form of commentary (physical observations in text form), and as a proportion of dieback incidence (number and extent of shoot dieback or bark cracks).  We will also report which varieties have survived, suffered, or prospered in the orchard (zone 3 northeast). 
  • Disease Susceptibility – This will be confined to the two most important disease issues for apple trees: apple scab fungus and blights. Blights include fireblight bacterium, but we will also make observations on various canker producing disease (Anthracnose and perennial cankers).  Work will take place throughout the season, as noticeable infection is different for each organism. Apple scab fungus will be assessed beginning late spring/early summer when leaf infection is viewable. All diseases mentioned can be reviewed through normal observation or a hand lens (loupe). All disease recordings will be stated as a confirmed or absent infection, as well as degree of damage in confirmed cases.
  • Cropping – where possible, attributes like biennial tendency and productivity will be reported. We will draw on our own records of previous years to add to the current season observations. Although we will provide some yield data, this is less a focus of our study as there is information available already in print.
Research results and discussion:

Currently we are in the gathering data phase. Attached is some supporting data. Note this template began with former information from the previous (sister) study, Table-1-Tree-Physical-Characteristics Table-9-Fruit-pH so much at this moment is redundant. This is a 2 year study, the first of which (2020) saw an very weak fruit crop in New England, Walden Heights included. We were still able to gather samples from many trees, but will repeat those in 2021 also since the dry year and tree stress due to draught may affect juice readings. We were able to do the expected amount of observation on non fruit aspects (tree conditions, etc.) Results of direct fruit juice testing and fruit condition will occur during the 2021 growing season. 

Research conclusions:

A conclusion is premature as we are only midway through the project. 

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research
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.