YAKIMA, Wash. — Washington’s first newly bred apple variety is soaring in popularity a full four years before the first commercial crop is expected to hit the market.

Developed by Washington State University Extension in Wenatchee, the new variety — Cosmic Crisp — is the offspring of the Honeycrisp and Enterprise varieties. Experts say the new apple is more resilient to disease and damage, has good texture, excellent taste and superior storage life. And that, coupled with the apple sharing the same harvest window as the once-dominant Red Delicious, has growers excited.

Tree orders from growers have shot up from 700,000 next year to about 2 million the following year, said Cristy Warnock, operations manager of Proprietary Variety Management in Yakima, the firm marketing Cosmic Crisp for WSU.

Northwest Nursery Improvement Institute, a grower organization of fruit tree nurseries throughout the Northwest, has propagation rights to grow the seedlings at various nurseries across the state. WSU will collect royalties from the trees and crops.

Although a lottery system was used to distribute the first 700,000 trees — which are available exclusively to Washington growers — sales are now open to growers across the state.

“Last fall, we thought there were around 1 million trees ordered for 2018, then it shot up to 2 million,” Warnock said. “The growers are really jumping on board in investing in this and giving it a shot. They’ve been watching it for a while.”

The new variety has the potential to expand its footprint in the market at a previously unseen pace, Warnock said. The popular Pink Lady variety took 10 to 15 years to get 7 million trees planted — a feat Cosmic Crisp could surpass in its first five years, she said.

Warnock describes it as the world’s largest launch of a new apple variety: “Now the momentum is going so fast it’s taking all of us by surprise.”

‘That’s a good apple’

Cosmic Crisp is darker and rounder than a Gala red. It’s crisp, as its name suggests, and possesses an equal balance of sweet and tart tastes, said Bonnie Schonberg, a research technician with the WSU Extension apple breeding program.

“There hasn’t been anybody who’s taken a bite of that apple and hasn’t said: ‘That’s a good apple,’” she said.

Although the red blush-colored apple isn’t considered the most flashy looking, its flavor, durability and long storage life are important attributes, Schonberg said.

“And that’s the potential — it meets the desires of a broad market,” she said. “That’s why people have been picking up on it and that’s why there’s so much hype about it.”

She said Cosmic Crisp also doesn’t brown quickly after being cut, and maintains its texture and taste after long periods of storage. “We have some that have been sitting in a refrigerator for a year and are still edible,” Schonberg said.

Cosmic roots

Breeding of the new apple began at the WSU Extension apple breeding program in 1997 by Bruce Barritt. His intent was to establish a tree that would not only grow well in this region, but also produce resilient, tasty apples.

Typically, it takes about 18 years from the time of cross-breeding to commercial release to establish a new variety. After years of testing and having Cosmic Crisp prove viable, marketing efforts began in 2013.

Hard work, rigorous testing and communication with growers has paid off, said Kate Evans, the program breeder.

More testing has been done on this new variety than any other variety that has come to Washington growers, she said.

“We’ve been very open and upfront about the data that has come out,” she said. “We really tried to provide the industry as much information as we could.

“They like what they see, and we have been doing quite a bit of testing up and down the state.”

Next year, the 700,000 trees already sold to growers will hit the dirt in orchards across the state, including Yakima, Prosser and Chelan, with the first commercial crop expected in 2020.

Even more trees, roughly 2 million, will be planted in spring 2018, signaling a rapidly growing footprint in the market, said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt Growers’ marketing director in Yakima.

“We like the apple,” he said. “It’s going to be widely available — everyone is going to have it.”

A new variety gives growers more investment options, said Tim Kovis, Washington State Tree Fruit Association spokesman.

“There’s a lot of positive feedback so far on this new variety,” he said. “The growers always enjoy another tool in their toolbox when making decisions on their investments.”

Trees will cost $5 to $6 each, plus royalty and other fees, said Bill Howell, Northwest Nursery Improvement Institute manager in Prosser. A new orchard can cost $25,000 an acre, he added.

Harvest window

One of the apple’s many attractive features is a fall harvest window that mirrors Red Delicious, which has lost some of its dominant footing in the market in recent years as new varieties have been introduced.

“We’re reducing the amount of Red Delicious (grown) in the state, so that’s going to be a natural replacement for that picking window,” Pepperl said. “There’s a big labor pool during that time, so it will be a good replacement for Red Delicious.”

Cosmic Crisp also will begin to take the place of Red Delicious at cold storage facilities, he said.

“It’s a sweet, big and better apple,” Pepperl said.

Article by Phil Ferolito, Yakima Herald