Cold climate apples and grapes put University of Minnesota on the map

The work on cold climate fruit will have an effect on cultivars grown in Ontario, including Honeycrisp apples

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As we head into fall, the name Honeycrisp will be on many consumers’ minds. The highly sought-after apple is arguably the most popular among the 27 varieties released by the University of Minnesota apple breeding program since its inception 111 years ago.

Less well known, but nonetheless starting to make an impact on tourism and a burgeoning wine industry in cooler regions of North America are cold hardy wine grape cultivars, also from the University of Minnesota, like Marquette and La Crescent.

Why it matters: Cool climate fruit varieties give growers a chance to be competitive in their local markets, lessening dependence on imports and generating economic activity.

“The Honeycrisp has changed our industry,” said Charles Stevens, who grows apples and blueberries on his farm east of Toronto near Newcastle. “It’s the hardest apple in the world to grow in my opinion but it’s the easiest apple that I’ve ever seen to market. It didn’t need any advertising – people ate one and told 10 other people.”

Charles Stevens in his orchard near Newcastle.
photo: Courtney Stevens for Ontario Apple Growers

First released in 1991, its distinctly crisp texture and juicy sweetness made it an instant hit with consumers, despite it being pricier than other apples.

But it’s that premium that makes it worthwhile for farmers to grow. Stevens was one of Ontario’s first Honeycrisp growers, planting his first trees in 2000; today it commands the biggest acreage in his orchard. Ontario-wide, it’s now the third most planted variety in the province with 10 per cent of the acreage, behind Gala and long-time stalwart Macintosh.

Honeycrisp grows best in cool climates and is hardy into the low minus 30C range. The cooler the summer, the better the apple will grow. Georgian Bay and eastern Ontario are most ideally suited in this province and elsewhere in Canada, Stevens believes Nova Scotia has the best Honeycrisp growing climate.

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It’s the biennial nature of its fruit production that makes it a hard-to-grow apple. Without thinning the blossoms, growers have a bumper crop one year and virtually no crop the following year – and they only have a short window from time of pollination to get that thinning done, which means it must be done chemically.

As well, stems left on harvested Honeycrisp apples can puncture small holes into other apples, leading to rot in storage or after packing. Most growers now harvest this variety using small stem clippers.

“We’re still learning how to grow the apple as best as possible,” Stevens said.

The University of Minnesota is home to one of three university apple breeding programs in the U.S. Most of its older varieties have found regional popularity – Haralson, introduced in the 1920s, is still widely grown – but it’s newer ones like Honeycrisp and some of its more recently introduced offspring like SweeTango, Rave and First Kiss that are attracting attention.

According to Prof. Jim Luby, director of fruit breeding programs at the University of Minnesota, texture and flavour are the two leading characteristics their breeders select for, followed by appearance as a more distant third.

Jim Luby.
photo: Supplied

“Apple breeding is a dating program, like E-Harmony for apples, when two parents are matched for strengths and weaknesses,” Luby explained during a visit to the University of Minnesota arboretum. “Then it’s a mating program, like artificial insemination, where pollen is collected from father trees and exposed to mother tree flowers, which produces hybrid seeds that are germinated and grown to fruiting.”

And finally, he added, it’s also a testing program where offspring are evaluated once they’re producing fruit – and that’s where the real work begins. Luby and his team taste up to 500 apples per day, with most varieties discarded during the first year; he estimates about one in 15,000 ends up on the market as a new variety.

That can take 15 to 20 years and they’ve started using marker-assisted selection to help them make better selections sooner, as well as grafting seedlings onto dwarfing rootstock to help shorten the juvenile phase.

“The apple industry in the U.S is not excited about having GM apples to sell – we could speed up more but if you can’t use the product, it’s not much use,” he said.

According to Matthew Clark, assistant professor in grape breeding and enology, grape breeding at University of Minnesota mirrors what’s happening in apples.

Matthew Clark.
photo: Supplied

“Native grapes have evolved with native pests and because they’ve adapted to different soils, they have interesting flavours,” Clark said. “Minnesota-specific issues are high humidity, a short and wet growing season and cold winter temperatures.”

Today, DNA markers are now used to screen grape plants when they are two to three inches high, and of the approximately 10,000 seeds started each year, about 1,000 will move forward to produce fruit.

Since 1997, the program has been releasing one new variety every five to 10 years. This includes Frontenac (1997), La Crescent (2002), Frontenac gris (2003), Marquette (2005) and most recently Itasca (2017).

“This has led to real jobs and tourism dollars,” he said. “In 1997, there were three commercial vineyards in Minnesota. Now we’re at almost 80.”

It is estimated that the University of Minnesota grape varieties create economic impact of $540 million USD, he added.

Apple bins ready for harvest in Ontario.
photo: Lilian Schaer

7 Vines Vineyard, about 35 km north of Minneapolis – St. Paul, is one of the state’s newer wineries. With the first vines planted in 2012, the winery now has 90 acres of Minnesota-bred cultivars. In addition to wine production, the focus has also been on turning their business into a destination for corporate events, weekend day trips from the city and weddings.

The Ontario government has recently expanded its VQA program to include Marquette on its list of approved grape varieties. This means winemakers in the province can sell wines using Marquette into the LCBO and at Farmers’ Markets. A number of wineries in Eastern Ontario are already growing Marquette – Pinot Noir is one of its grandparents, Clark says – due to its cold hardiness.

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