Lost in the Supermarket

How a New Apple is Born

March 09, 2020 SupermarketGuru
Lost in the Supermarket
How a New Apple is Born
Chapters
Lost in the Supermarket
How a New Apple is Born
Mar 09, 2020
SupermarketGuru

Rave®, Jazz®, Cosmic Crisp® - you’ve probably noticed the rise in creative names (and flavors) arriving in supermarkets to shake up the apple category. But, do you know how a new apple is born? From patents and propagation to countless tests and trials, learn all about how a new apple is born in this episode of Lost in the Supermarket!

Rob Blakey, R&D Manager at Stemilt

Rob is the research and development manager for Stemilt, a family-owned company and leading grower-packer-shipper of apples, pears, cherries, stone fruits, and organics. Originally from South Africa, Rob earned his PhD in avocado post-harvest physiology. He worked at Westfalia Fruit in South Africa and in the UK as a horticultural researcher in avocados, before moving to Washington State in 2016. At Stemilt, Rob manages R&D activities and new variety programs.

Brianna Shales, Senior Marketing Manager at Stemilt

Brianna is the senior marketing manger at Stemilt. She joined Stemilt’s marketing team after earning a BA in Communication from Washington State University. More than a decade later, Brianna works on marketing strategy and communications execution as it relates to the Stemilt brand, and its signature branded varieties like Rave® apples.

Show Notes Transcript

Rave®, Jazz®, Cosmic Crisp® - you’ve probably noticed the rise in creative names (and flavors) arriving in supermarkets to shake up the apple category. But, do you know how a new apple is born? From patents and propagation to countless tests and trials, learn all about how a new apple is born in this episode of Lost in the Supermarket!

Rob Blakey, R&D Manager at Stemilt

Rob is the research and development manager for Stemilt, a family-owned company and leading grower-packer-shipper of apples, pears, cherries, stone fruits, and organics. Originally from South Africa, Rob earned his PhD in avocado post-harvest physiology. He worked at Westfalia Fruit in South Africa and in the UK as a horticultural researcher in avocados, before moving to Washington State in 2016. At Stemilt, Rob manages R&D activities and new variety programs.

Brianna Shales, Senior Marketing Manager at Stemilt

Brianna is the senior marketing manger at Stemilt. She joined Stemilt’s marketing team after earning a BA in Communication from Washington State University. More than a decade later, Brianna works on marketing strategy and communications execution as it relates to the Stemilt brand, and its signature branded varieties like Rave® apples.

Phil:

[inaudible] Welcome to Lost in the Supermarket, the podcast that goes behind the shelves. I'm your host, Phil Lempert . Today's podcast. Teach us how a new Apple is born. Our guests, Rob Blakely , the R and D manager at Stemilt is research and development manager for the company, which is family owned and leading grower packer, shipper of apples, pears, cherries, stone fruits and organics. Originally from South Africa, Rob earned his PhD in avocado post-harvest physiology. He worked at Westphalia fruit in South Africa and in the UK as a horticulture researcher in avocados before moving to Washington state in 2016 he manages the R and D activities and new variety programs. And with Rob is Briana shales, senior marketing manager who joins the Stemilts marketing team after earning a BA in communications from Washington state university more than a decade later, she works on marketing strategy and communications execution as it relates to the Stemilt brand and its signature branded varieties like rave apples. Both of you welcome to Los in the supermarket.

Brianna:

Thanks. Thanks for having us.

Rob:

Thanks very much.

Phil:

So Rob, let me , let me start with you. And , and I don't mean to be trite here, but you know, most people think of as we're growing up Johnny Appleseed and the folk tale when they think of, you know, how an Apple tree comes to life, but planting Apple seeds is not how that works. Right?

Rob:

Um, in some way it is, right? We've just progressed a lot since , uh, Johnny Appleseeds times. We all still uh, planting seeds and seeing how they perform and if we liked them, we will propagate them on and , and keep developing and commercializing them. But , uh , yeah, it's a , a lot more efficient and labor intensive than the joining Apple seeds times.

Phil:

So explain to us if you would, how a new Apple variety actually comes to be and what happens first?

Rob:

So first step , we need to get a seed. So we will have a mother tree of a variety that we are interested in. Say Honeycrisp for example. And we will have Holland donor, the father, if you will. And we will take pollen from the father tree from father flower and pollinate some flowers on the mother plant and it will grow an Apple and once the Apple is rock , we will take those seeds and we will plant them out. We will grow them up and we will grow off them onto a rootstock because we only really interested in the fruit of the tree. We not interested how it grows its own roots and we will grow it up. We will take it from a nursery, we'll plant it in an orchard and we will wait for it to produce fruits and were probably about five years into the process. Now once we finally have fruits of the variety and then we will face it, if it's any good, we will keep evaluating it if it's still good, if it grows a strong healthy tree, we will keep evaluating and increasing the number of trees of this variety and seeing how it performs on a commercial scale, not just on single trees or a few dozen trees. And if it's still doing well and it's still storing well, eating well, pecking well and getting broad consumer acceptance, we will plant dozens and eventually hundreds and maybe even thousands of acres. But that whole process is going to take thousands of years , 20 if we in a rush city , if it's a on a normal timescale .

Phil:

So you talk about whether it tastes good, whether it's good. What's the ratio when you're experimenting, when you're developing, when you're breeding these, these Apple trees and these apples, what's the ratio of the ones that are good to bad ?

Rob:

So we work on a ratio of one to 10,000

Phil:

wow.

Rob:

One variety will be successful out of every 10,000 seats .

Phil:

Okay. So you mentioned pollination. How is crosspollination different than genetic modification?

Rob:

So cross pollination is the standard way that apples are bread . So like I said, taking pollen from one flower and putting it on the flower of the mother tree. They are different ways of genetic modification or genetic engineering. So genetic modification is using by a technology tools. Two different ways to do this. Artificially silence, some jeans . And that has been done to silence. The enzyme said cause Apple Browning and those fruits are available.

Phil:

And that's like CRISPR . No. Okay.

Rob:

That's the standard genetic modification and there are other techniques that can be done in what we tend to Natick modification. And then the third step is genetic engineering, which would encompass CRISPR, CRISPR, CAS nine and that's using biotechnology tools to take a gene from an Apple and replace it with a gene that we don't want in a variety of interest. So they put some real world examples on that. Let's say Honeycrisp has a tendency to develop soft scald , so sensitive to cold. So we can take a gene that we know will give the Honeycrisp tolerance to call the temperature and we can insert it into Honeycrisp and make it more cold tolerant in theory anyway, that hasn't been done to my knowledge.

Phil:

So what happens, you described it briefly before, but what happens once you get a winning Apple and it is quote unquote born and it goes to market, what are all the steps there?

Rob:

Yeah , so it's , it's going to be a roughly a four stage process. So once it's born, it's going to be an a siblings of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands in the breeding program and they are at least a hundred Apple breeding programs around the world and people looking out for those promising apples. So it gets born , it gets evaluated. If it's one in those 10,000 that will progress to the phase two where we looking at a few dozen trees. Then it goes to phase three where we are looking at a few hundred trees and this is where commercial growers start getting interested because it's past the two major milestones or of the first phase and the second phase and it's showing commercial promise and this will go out to a number of commercial growers all over the world for evaluations and if they're still interested at that stage, there will be some, some tenders go out to see who wants to invest the money to commercialize this Apple in a large way and there will be negotiations there and who wants to run with it, who has the expertise to bring this Apple to markets and return some money to the Brita, make some money for the farmer and delight the consumer with this exceptional Apple.

Phil:

So it's not that you're just creating the seeds and whoever wants to buy it can buy it. You're really pretty picky what it sounds like of who you're going to allow to take those seeds to market those apples to grow those apples.

Rob:

Absolutely, yes. There's a lot of money invested into an Apple breeding program. Lacan was saying it can take 50 years to bring this, this Apple to markets . So they , there's a lot of time and energy and costs associated with us. So the breed and rarely wants to partner with a commercial grower, a commercial market to that can capture the value of this exceptional Apple. And on the same side, the commercial grower wants to partner with readers that have exceptional genetic material, exceptional Apple varieties.

Phil:

And, and how do you evaluate the breeders ? Sorry, the grower, the grower comes, everything looks good. Are you going back in six months, in a year, in five years, making sure that they're doing everything to your strict standards?

Rob:

Yes. So, so we will do, they're forced to melt. We have our own grower base or our own orchards, which we will plant on and obviously when we're doing a good job there, but we have outside growers across the country, which we have longstanding partnerships with. And so we trust them that they are good growers before they will grow any new Apple variety and we will continually visit them, help them with the orchard processees and helped him

Brianna:

in the packing house, helped him on the marketing. So there's this very close association between the breed, the marketer and the grower.

Phil:

So Brianna, I in looking through all of your website, your information stemo now has a rave brand Apple and it says that it's the M N five five cultivar. So I have no idea what that means, but explain to me why there's a cultivar name and a brand name for this Apple.

Brianna:

Yeah, it's actually relatively simple. So , um, and but yet trademark names are pretty new to the Apple world, but I think the very first Apple with a trademark was pink lady brand apples. So we have a cultivar which is MN 55 so that's the actual tree that what will become our rave . Apple is grown on and cultivars are plants. And so through the patent process, they can only be patented, which means that that patent will run out over time and can become open for anyone to grow. You know, including someone at home, they could plant that tree. So instead of relying on the patent companies like Stemilt are going to trademark a brand name for that variety and then set high standards for the Apple that the rave brand must meet in order to be called that. So not every single Apple that we harvest from an eman 55 tree gets to be called rave because we've set those high standards and that's really to help us make sure that we're connecting to consumers, bringing the value to them and to the retail world. And ultimately just bringing a variety or an Apple along that has a great flavor profile and can be remembered for that.

Phil:

So, you know, Rob had said that one out of, you know, tens of thousands of apples actually you make it, why did rave make it and what does it taste like?

Brianna:

Rob, you might have more, you know, on why it made it from the technical side. But one of the really interesting thing about rave is that it harvest in late July. So for us in Washington state and for most growing regions, that's way ahead of traditional varieties. The other cool thing about rave is it's a Honeycrisp cross. So not only are you getting an Apple that's an early season Apple, but it's also with Honeycrisp Parenthoods , which is a very, has that fracture that consumers get excited about with apples today. So for us, rave really filled a window that the no other Apple could. It's also got beautiful coloring and we like to describe its flavor as being outrageously juicy with a refreshing snappy zing. So it is a little sr than other apples, but it's just been a fantastic, you know, quick to market Apple for us. And usually it's available in early August and then running through October.

Phil:

Well I will definitely taste it this late summer. You mentioned early, so Rob, for you, you said that it could take 30 years. Did rave take 30 years?

Rob:

No, it wasn't a little bit foster. So we decided to take a little bit of a gamble on us because we identified it as a very promising Apple because of what Brianna described. So we accelerated the development of the rave.

Phil:

So what traits are you and other breeders looking for when you're creating new Apple crosses?

Rob:

So there are lots of different very technical traits we are looking for, but I'll say at a fruit Logistica two weeks ago and they spoke about being relevant, efficient and different. And that's a nice overarching theme of what we're looking for. So we need to be making varieties and brands that are relevant that people want to buy and pay a decent price for and have returns going back to the grower that are sustainable. We need to have an efficient Apple. So that's easy to grow, easy to store, pack and sell. And it needs to be different. We conscious have the next gala. It needs to be something different that people can really appreciate. And it sets itself apart with consumers. So lots of different technical aspects of how do we grow it, what protection does it need, what storage I speaks? Does it need? How do we pack it on the line ? How do we get it through to two retailers? How long is the season and storage life of it? So those are all the aspects that myself and my team are looking at to inform our decisions.

Phil:

You mentioned with rave that one of the reasons that you fast tracked it and so on was the growing season as well as the tastes and the bite and the juiciness and so on. What are some of the other things that you look for in new varieties?

Rob:

So it has to have great flavor and great texture. And we found with Honeycrisp that it delivers bows and there's this appetite from consumers for something an Apple like that. So we are looking for selections, varieties that have that crispness of Honeycrisp but are delivering different flavors that have better efficiencies of production for our grower and deliver that great eating experience to the consumer. So we do have to think of it with the end in mind. That was what the consumer likes and is willing to purchase and then we work back that way. So, as you can imagine, it's a very difficult or very high bar or multiple bars to reach. And that's why there's only one in the back , 10,000 seeds that will become a commercial variety.

Phil:

And Brianna , as a marketer, what do you look for?

Rob:

Well, you know, I think we obviously rely heavily on Rob's team to make sure that it can actually come out of the orchard and make it to the retail shelf, right? Because

Brianna:

we still rely on retailers to market our product. But for us it's really, it's about flavor and offering consumers something different. You know, if you're not different, you're the same. And that's not a fun position to be in. So R , the melts mission statements , part of it is to delight consumers. And so every time we look at a new variety from the marketing standpoint, we feel like we could market anything as long as it fulfills that mission.

Phil:

So once Rob comes over to your office and says, Brown, I have this great new variety here, taste it . You agree you love it, what happens next? And how long is it from the time that Rob gives that to you to taste until it's on the supermarket shelves?

Brianna:

Well, to be honest, it's not just Robin , I get to taste it.

Phil:

No, I know

Brianna:

work that his team does both internally and externally to study these varieties, which I think is so fascinating. He even I, he don't, you even identify people that are like actually have good taste buds around here. So you don't want to be on the note test list. It's not a good place to type the apples. I've had to mix a few of my colleagues that don't have good taste buds.

Phil:

Okay. But Brianna's okay in tasting

Brianna:

so far, but no, but he does, Rob comes around with a cart. We get to try new apples or new pairs and Terry's even all the time. So it's really a fun world that he lives in. On the marketing side, you know, we really step in once Rob and the leadership team have decided that we're going to pursue a variety commercially. So you know, we're moving beyond the test into actual plantings . And so we step in in a few ways. You know, we'll, we'll write initial marketing plan if we're trying to earn a license to be the exclusive marketer of that variety. But then we also, once we, with something like rave, we actually work on name development and branding and you know, again, marketing strategies and how we'll go to market with it. And we're doing that up to, I would say five years before the varieties even going to hit the shelf in a small way.

Phil:

So Brianna don't hate me for what I'm going to ask next. Okay. Promise.

Brianna:

Yeah, I promise.

Phil:

Why do we need new Apple varieties?

Brianna:

Yeah, it's such a hot topic. I think I get asked about that at every single show or event that I'm at. But the bold thing that's demote would say is we do think that there's room for more. We know that it's a crowded category, but the bar has been set really, really high thanks to that emergence of Honeycrisp. But we think that there's room for it, that bar to go higher. And that's what sort of keeps driving us ahead on new varieties is we really want to keep elevating flavor through through new flavors. And we know that that means that some varieties are going to fall out of favor and you know, fall off the shelf. But, and that the lifespan of overall apples might be shorter than we're used to with something like red delicious that was around

Phil:

[inaudible] ,

Brianna:

you know , years and years and years in a big way.

Phil:

I grew up with it. That was it.

Brianna:

Fan might be shorter, but the flavor and quality is just going to keep getting better, which means that people are going to be attracted to apples in enjoying more of them. But the produce department's crowded, especially on the fruit side. So we have to break through that with flavor and there's a lot of exciting stuff coming down the pipeline around that.

Phil:

So Rob and last question, look into your crystal ball. What does the Apple category look like? If I, if I look at other categories in the produce department, tomatoes for example, we're seeing lots of different varieties of tomatoes and tastes of tomatoes and shapes of tomatoes. When I look at apples and sure there's, you know, different colored apples, but for the most part they're all the same shape. You see any, any major innovation that's really going to change apples that goes beyond taste . Maybe just taste is number one. I agree with you on that.

Rob:

Maybe apples are a very genetically malleable crop . There are aliens in crop genetics in that we can have a lot of diversity. When , if you want to talk about shape, I've seen latch apples like we have started , not teachers. I've seen dynoed apples. I've seen cylindrical wines . I've seen the are shaped apples, believe it or not. So we have different shapes. We have lots of different colors going from almost black to whites with a lot of different colors in between. We have different flavor profiles. We even have pink and red fleshed apples coming down the pipeline. So there's lots of interesting elephant in the Apple category. Lots of stuff we are working on. Then even we add flavors like Mellon , Berry , honey, a soft fridge , so there's lots of different diversities in the Apple category we can look forward to.

Phil:

So when am I going to see that on my supermarket shelf ? Which one? All of them. I love the idea of everything that you just described and I, and I am an Apple eater, but you know to be , to be honest with you, for me and , and I don't, you know, I don't take a bite out of an Apple. I actually slice it and you know, I eat it with slices and I might add some cheese to it or some jammer or whatever else. What you're describing just changes my whole outlook of apples and I'm going to eat more apples. So you've got to bring them to market.

Rob:

Yeah, we're working on it, we're working on it. So hopefully in the next few years we'll have some, some exciting new varieties and brands to bring through, and then it might be a little bit longer to bring those truly out of the box Apple to market.

Phil:

Well, Rob, Briana , thanks so much for joining us today on lost in the supermarket.

Brianna:

Thanks for having us. That was fun.