[NAFEX] University of Minnesota professor strives for the perfect apple
Sam.Brungardt at state.mn.us
Fri Oct 15 17:31:03 EDT 2004
University of Minnesota professor strives for the perfect apple
ST. PAUL - David Bedford knows how to compare apples to apples.
Each fall, the University of Minnesota research scientist says he tastes
500 to 600 apples a day in his job with the university's fruit-breeding
program. Stretch that over a 25-year career, and you're talking about a
guy who has sampled 750,000 apples. Bedford, 52, should taste his
millionth apple by the time he retires.
All that munching has born some pretty sweet fruit. Bedford is one of
the people at the university who came up with the Honeycrisp, a rising
star in the nation's apple orchards.
With the latest crop of Honeycrisps showing up now in produce
departments, we decided it would be a good time to see what Bedford has
got his teeth into these days.
That's how we learned being an apple breeder takes strong teeth and a
lot of patience, how good names for new apples don't just grow on trees
and what it's like to taste a top secret apple.
Run by horticultural sciences professor James Luby, the university's
fruit-breeding program started nearly 100 years ago, focusing on
creating varieties that will thrive in an area that's colder than most
The 23 varieties of apples introduced by the university over the decades
- including Haralson, Fireside and Sweet Sixteen - are mostly grown and
eaten around here. They account for about three-fourths of the apples
produced in the state.
The Honeycrisp, however, is the university apple that has broken out of
the region. Released to growers in 1991, Honeycrisp apple trees
distinguished themselves by producing what university breeders describe
as "explosively crisp" fruit.
"You just bite into it and it just cracks, and the juice flies," Bedford
said. "That's what sells Honeycrisp."
The apple was quickly adopted by growers in all the major
apple-producing regions in the country, including Washington, New York
and Michigan. The university has a patent on the apple and gets a
royalty for each tree.
Getting to that kind of success meant sorting through a lot of bad
Because the trees take years to get mature enough to bear fruit, getting
a new apple good enough to be released to growers is a decades-long
process involving thousands of rejects.
Bedford estimates that there are maybe six to eight people in the
country doing what he does, which basically involves sampling the fruit
from among the 25,000 unique apple seedlings he has growing at one time.
He's constantly planting thousands of new hybrids to replace the vast
majority of trees he rejects.
"You taste and spit," Bedford said of his testing technique. "About the
first 100, it's almost kind of fun. It's the last 50 that's not so much
"After about six hours of tasting 500 to 600 apples, your mouth is
done," he said. "Your taste buds get burned out."
Along the way, he's developed apples that taste like cherry Lifesavers
or pineapple, apples with the texture of an Asian pear, apples that look
like doughnuts, apples with beet-red flesh. "You come up with new
combinations you can't even imagine," he said.
Out of the thousands of apples he samples, Bedford finds perhaps a dozen
or so seedlings each year that will merit further testing. Those
selections face years of growing and tasting to see which will be the
one tree out of 10,000 that is good enough to be released to growers.
"You always learn the downside in the subsequent years," Bedford said,
like a variety that won't bear fruit every other year, or the one that
doesn't handle a hot summer well.
"There's no point in a short courtship," Bedford said.
In fact, the process usually takes about 30 years. In his
quarter-century at the university, Bedford has only seen one other apple
variety besides the Honeycrisp released. That was the Zestar!, which
came out in 1998.
Bedford describes the Zestar! as a great-tasting, early-ripening apple
that combines sweetness, tartness and "about our fourth choice" for a
One surprising part of Bedford's job: A lot of the apples varieties he
rejects - ones that will never get to the marketplace - really taste
"Every year, we probably throw away 500 to 1,000 trees that are of
better eating quality than Red Delicious," he said.
Red Delicious is an attractive apple that has no flavor, according to
Bedford. But there are so many acres of Red Delicious apples planted in
this country that a newcomer has to be really superior to break into the
So, Bedford ignores apples that are merely good. He's swinging for the
fences, trying for another home run.
"What we're looking for is the clear winner," he said.
Another Honeycrisp, in other words.
"Honeycrisp might be as good as it gets, I don't know," Bedford said.
But he is using Honeycrisp the way a thoroughbred breeder would use a
Triple Crown winner. It's sort of the stud apple for scores of pairings
that might produce an apple with a licorice flavor and a Honeycrisp
texture or a version of Honeycrisp that ripens in August instead of
"This is like having 70 kids. Some of them will disappoint you. Some
will end up on drugs or in jail. One of them will become a president,"
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http:// www.twincities.com
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